Barbara & Stu's Excellent Vacations Great trips we have taken

Here are abbreviated trip notes, full notes to follow whenever I have time to write them:

Nicaragua is land of great natural beauty and variety of terrain, flanked by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, divided by a cordillera of volcanoes (52 in total) and graced by Lake Nicaragua (Cocibolca), the largest lake in Central America at 8000 sq km (and second largest in Latin America after Lake Titicaca), Lake Managua (Xolotlán), rivers, thousands of islands, lush rainforest and rich wildlife. The cities, influenced by Spanish colonialism and battered by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, are attractive and charming set in picture-perfect landscapes.


We landed in the capitol city, Managua, a less graceful city that sprawls along the shores of its eponymous lake.  It had been decimated by earthquakes in 1931 and 1972 and still bears the scars.  We toured a couple of key archaeological sites accompanied by our excellent naturalist guide, aptly named Juan Guido, and well known Archaeologist Edgar Espinoza, finishing with a visit to an overlook site that presents a lovely view of the lake.  We spent the night in Hotel Los Robles, a small inn with ample local character, lovely courtyards, a pool and a very good restaurant.

The next day we traveled to the Solentiname Archipelago in the south east section of Lake Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border. On the way we visited the Museo Arqueologico Gregorio Aguilar Barra  in Juigalpa, capitol of the Chontales department, which houses the largest ancient sculpture collection in the country, which Edgar helped us to understand.  We had lunch in San Carlos, a small border town on the banks of the lake, before boarding a small boat to Albergo Celentiname on San Fernando Island (aka Elvis Chavarría Island) one of the 4 inhabited islands in the 36 island archipelago.  The simple guesthouse with stunning lake views is ensconced in tropical gardens that attract butterflies, hummingbirds and a variety of shore and land birds.  At night a unique species of bat snatches small fish from the shallow water next to the hotel’s boat dock.  We spent three days exploring the lake, islands and nearby Rio Papaturro and Los Guatuzos nature sanctuary, where we viewed abundant wildlife including black howler, capuchin and spider monkeys, huge orange iguanas, Basilisk lizards, hand-sized hairy tarantulas, Owl Butterflies, and many birds including Ospreys, Roadside Hawks, Cinnamon and Green Breasted Mango Hummingbirds, Orioles, Black-Headed Trogons, American Pygmy, Green and Common Kingfishers,  Tiger Herons, Great Blue Herons, Night Herons, Blue & Grey and Scarlet Tanagers, White Ibises, Anhingas, Cormorants, Purple Gallinules, Roseate Spoonbills, Vultures, Black Chinned Parakeets, Scissortail Flycatchers,  Peewees, Mangrove Swallows, Tropical Kingbirds, Northern Jacanas and Yellow-winged Caciques. 


Lake Nicaragua is the only place on earth where bull sharks travel the rivers from the ocean to the lake and adapted to freshwater.  Unfortunately fishing rights were sold to hunt these sharks and the once abundant species is now extremely rare.  A tradition of naïve painting flourishes on these islands and we visited an artist family to learn about their work and view their lovely paintings, mostly depicting the lifestyle and landscape of the Archipelago in painstaking detail. On the largest island, Mancarrón, artisans carve and paint balsa wood into whimsical shapes, such as frogs, birds, fish and turtles.


We flew from San Carlos to Managua and were met by our driver Marvin, who took us north to León, where Juan grew up and lives with his wife and young daughter.  The city was founded by the Spaniard Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524 (who also established the city of Granada in 1523) and was moved about 20 miles from its original location in 1610 due to the earthquakes that rocked the original settlement. It was the original capitol of the country until Managua was designated the capitol in 1858.  It was also a key center of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 that dethroned the Samoza family dictatorship as well as a center of education and culture, home to the renowned poet Rubén Darío.  It features a monument to its poets in Poet Park and a beautiful university in colonial style built in 1812.  León was the hottest place we visited since the heat was not mitigated by the strong lake and sea breezes we enjoyed elsewhere.  It’s still a lovely town, ringed by volcanoes and featuring handsome churches, monuments and architecture.  Although the facade of the Cathedral (Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary 1747) is in need of cleaning and renovation, the interior is spare and elegant and the rooftop with its whitewashed cupolas and stunning views of the town and surrounding landscape is well worth visiting.  You can see nearby Masaya, Cerro Negro, Momotombo Volcanoes and as far as San Cristobal Volcano, the tallest in the country at 1,745 m.   A succession of churches line the “royal” street, the main thoroughfare  in town, culminating in the 18th C El Calvario  with its colorful bas reliefs depicting the life of Jesus Christ.


We started our tour with a visit to a local artist, Frederico Quezada, a master of the local tradition of crafting colorful carpets, called Pasionarias, from sawdust and natural dyes.  These carpets, as many as 70, depicting the passion of Christ cover 2 streets during the Easter week procession and are a labor of love that whole families create.  Frederico created a small sawdust painting for us rendering the Toucan on the Tours Nicaragua logo that he copied from Juan’s shirt.  In keeping with its artistic tradition, León is home to the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian, which displays a fine collection of Latin American art and artifacts from ancient to modern times.   Just off the main square near the Cathedral, the history of Nicaragua from prehistoric times to the present is depicted on murals in a park celebrating the revolution.


Our hotel, El Convento, was designed from a former convent as its name indicates and contains a remarkable collection of religious art.  Rooms are arranged around the central courtyard and provide all modern amenities including a refreshing pool in a courtyard decorated with artwork.  The hotel restaurant is mediocre, however we enjoyed tasty local specialties at El Sesteo on the main square and Azul, a modern café in a boutique hotel. 


We drove south past Managua to Granada, arguably the most beautiful city in Nicaragua. On the way we visited the Masaya Volcano National Park where you can peer into the maw of the still active volcano, which last erupted in 2002.  There’s a very well annotated visitor’s center that describes the flora, fauna and geology of the park and you can drive to a parking lot near the top and walk to the smoking edge of the crater.  Pacific Parakeets nest on the walls of the crater and there are 13 species of bats in the park, though we didn’t spot any.  Views from the high points are widespread and encompass the 52 km Laguna Masaya.  We had a good lunch at the touristy El Bucanero (the Pirate), overlooking the Masaya lagoon.


Our hotel in Granada, the Plaza Colon, is located on the Parque Central (main square) immediately opposite the Cathedral on the other side of the park.  We had a spacious room with a large balcony overlooking the bustling square , the horse and carriages which take tourists on town tours and the surrounding buildings.  Horse carts are also routinely used by locals to transport goods.  The hotel oozes local character and charm combined with luxurious modern amenities and is located within easy walking distance of sights, shops and restaurants.


We had plenty of time to stroll the attractive cobblestone streets, visit the churches and key attractions and cool off in the hotel’s pool. We took an early morning excursion to Mombacho Volcano.  The top is in a cloud forest and most of the time, including when we visited, is enveloped in clouds and mist so we missed the views.  We took a hike around the caldera and experienced the heat of the fumaroles and saw some lovely wildflowers and a partial view of a shy two-toed sloth up in a tree, however, we’d recommend that you wait for a time when the top is clear to visit.  It gets quite cold up top so bring a fleece and good hiking footwear if you go.  Coffee is a major crop in Nicaragua and there’s a small café that offers a taste of a local variety that is quite good.


There are plenty of good restaurants in Grenada and we especially enjoyed a refined dinner in a romantic garden at the Bistro Estrada and the lively atmosphere and tender steaks in the popular steakhouse, El Zajuan.


The eruption of Mombacho many centuries ago formed a small cluster of islands in Lake Nicaragua just offshore of the city of Granada.  We were celebrating our wedding anniversary and arranged to spend two nights at the Jicaro Island Ecolodge on one of these small islands.  A driver picked us up at the Hotel Plaza Colon in Granada and transferred us to the pier. The young woman representing Jicaro there could not have been more engaging and welcoming. After a brief wait for another couple, we boarded their shuttle boat to the island, passing other small islets, cormorants, egrets, herons and small boats. A lovely way to arrive at a lodge.

We were greeted with cold towels and local iced tea by two sweet ladies and the delightful Julio, who gave us a tour of the property and showed us to our elegantly outfitted duplex casita. There's a cozy dining room adjacent to the open kitchen with the best views of the lake, a serene spa with 2 treatment rooms and a sitting area, a small but deep and beautifully landscaped pool that allows you to swim up to the bar if you want to sip a cocktail while perched on a bench in the pool, a lounge area that includes a small shop selling indigenous crafts, the office where you can also find bird and animal identification books, clean stylish bathrooms so you don't have to return to your casita, a small patio down by the dock and an observation tower. Stu and I climbed the observation tower a few times and it's well worth the exertion because the views of the lake and Mombacho are spectacular and being above the canopy bird watching is quite good. We didn’t want to do anything but unwind, swim, eat, drink and enjoy the scenery and Jicaro Island is a good place for total relaxation.  We had arranged to have a romantic dinner on a floating dock for our anniversary. The dock was broken so that was out, however, they set up a table with candles and Tiki torches in the sitting area of the spa facing the lake, so it was secluded and romantic, and they gave us a free bottle of wine as well so it was still special.

After our stay at Jicaro, we were met on the dock by Marvin, Juan and Edgar and drove further south to Rivas to board a public ferry to Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua.   Marvin drove back to Managua and we were transported around Ometepe by Martin, an employee of Finca San Juan de la Isla, the lodge on a working farm where we stayed on the island.  Ometepe is shaped like a lopsided figure eight with the perfect cone of La Concepcion Volcano on the larger loop and the smaller Maderas Volcano on the other.  Ometepe is a very special place and a must-see if you visit Nicaragua, we wish we’d had a few more days to spend there.  If you’re very fit, you can climb the volcanoes, though we chose to admire them from the ground level.

We arrived at the lodge around lunch time and after settling into our rustic but very clean and comfortable log cabin on the shore of the lake, we enjoyed delicious fresh fish on the outdoor patio of the dining room.  We had the entire afternoon to swim in the lake and it was totally delightful.  The sand is dark and soft but not hot, the water is an ideal temperature and there are gentle waves, enough to have fun playing and body surfing but not enough to knock you over. The water is shallow so you can walk out for some distance and the view of Concepcion Volcano looming behind the cabins took our breath away!  We had the beach to ourselves for the whole afternoon, except for a couple of local kids playing down farther and a local or two riding by on horseback. Thatched umbrellas provide shade and you're supplied with beach chairs and big soft towels.  We had fun with Juan and Edgar over a well prepared dinner. We could have spent days just enjoying the lake, but there's lots to see on Ometepe.

The next day we circumnavigated the large side of the island, visiting the important archaeological sites and the wonderful Museo El Ceibo which features a numismatic museum where the history of the country is expressed in its currency, and an archaeological museum with an impressive collection of pre-Columbian ceramics and other artifacts. Edgar shared valuable insight into the collection and also lead us on a hike later near Maderas to see ancient petroglyphs.  We walked around Charco Verde Refuge, a wildlife preserve where we discovered a variety of herbs, flowers, trees, butterflies, birds and two black howler families – a female with two offspring, a very tiny one perhaps a month old and another a bit older, and a female with a young female baby who was apparently curious about us and hung out on a branch watching us.  Rose-bellied spiny lizards scuttled through the brush around our feet.   Locals enjoyed a sandy beach which offered scenic views of Ometepe’s two volcanoes.  We joined a local family for lunch in their simple home and sampled Chicha de Mais, the local firewater, which was milder than expected.

We reluctantly left Ometepe and on the drive back to Managua stopped to visit a family of skilled ceramics makers in the quaint town of San Juan de Oriente, passed through the fragrant town of Katarina, city of flowers, and took a lunch break by the Apoyo Lagoon, a picturesque crater lake popular with locals and tourists alike.    The view encompassed Mombacho and the city of Granada in the distance.  Lunch at the aptly named Linda Vista restaurant overlooking the lagoon was delicious with sizzling platters of grilled fish or meat accompanied by rice and vegetables.  Our final stop was to the Masaya Market, though that was a bit disappointing, selling mainly tourist schlock without much evidence of local artisanship.

We spent the night in Managua at another small charismatic hotel, Casa Naranja, where the team is exceptionally friendly and helpful and the public spaces ooze with character and charm.  We had to arise early for our flight to Little Corn Island so we retired early.

The next morning we flew from Managua to Big Corn Island off the east coast of Nicaragua passing the mountainous highlands of the center and tropical rainforests in the east.  After a brief taxi ride to the dock and a rough wet boat ride to Little Corn Island, we arrived at Yemaya resort about an hour later, rattled but intact.  15 modern, tasteful and well appointed casitas are strung along the beach with breathtaking views of the clear blue Caribbean Sea.  The main building, which houses the indoor bar, restaurant, lounge and office, is perfectly located to capture the sea breezes and offer idyllic views.  There’s a small spa in a hexagonal building with a thatched roof though they were in the process of building a reception area.  There’s a yoga pavilion, beach bar and beach shack where you can get snorkeling gear, kayaks or paddle boards. We mainly relaxed and swam in the sea, though we also took a ride in an authentic wooden Misquito sail boat to snorkel further out.  They’re used locally as fishing boats and we had a local crew.  The sailing is as much fun as the snorkeling. It only cost $15.00 and they provide cold soft drinks and good quality snorkeling gear. We saw a small ray and some nurse sharks as well as the usual colorful Caribbean tropical fish. The reefs could be in better shape, though perhaps the diving reefs are better. We didn't feel that we had enough time for scuba diving. Water temperature was perfect and there was very little wave action on the shore, so swimming was serene and you can snorkel right off shore.   Food at Yemaya was outstanding and they make excellent smoothies and cocktails with freshly squeezed fruit juices.  It was a lovely place to unwind for a few days.  We did take some walks around the island and climbed the "lighthouse" which is a metal derrick without a functional light. However, the steep climb up a long metal ladder is rewarded by spectacular views of the whole island. Surprisingly aside from the ubiquitous grackles and a pair of frigate birds, we didn't spot any other birds on the island, not even shore birds. The other places to stay appeared to be much more basic.  The road to town is paved with a sidewalk embellished with whimsical carvings of birds, fish, turtles, people, a mermaid and other designs.  WiFi and phone didn’t work here or in the Solentiname Archipelago, which enhanced the sense of isolation and serenity.

We spent our final night in Managua at the Casa Naranja and enjoyed a scrumptious dinner on the outdoor patio at Cocina de Doña Haydee, which was located a couple of blocks from the hotel, an easy walk.  It was frequented by large tourist groups but also locals.  Service was great and there was live music and a festive atmosphere.  It was the perfect way to end a terrific adventure!

If you’re inspired to visit Nicaragua we can highly recommend our travel agency, Tours Nicaragua.  Our driver and guides were personable, knowledgeable and fun to travel with, itineraries can be customized to your preferences and prices are reasonable.