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León, in the hot NW of Nicaragua, is known for its colonial architecture and murals from the Sandinista era. This, however, is a decidedly apolitical wall-painting. Not partisan, but definitely of dubious recommendability. The nearby Cerro Negro volcano has become a somewhat popular place for thrill-seekers in Central America; you hike up the black sand volcano (which is active, by the way) with a beater board and then surf down the hot slope. One of the city's main advertising/painting businesses proudly displays its name on the wall of this hostel: Picasso. No cubism here--just hot good times.
Buena Vista Surf Club (BVSC) is a tropical modern eco-lodge nestled in a hill overlooking Playa Maderas. Guests stay in free-standing tree houses with magnificent views of the lush jungle and Pacific ocean. BVSC was built by a Dutch couple, Marc and Marielle, who left Amsterdam behind for the sun and surf of Nicaragua. The hotel is off the grid and rooms do not have electricity during the day and use solar powered energy at night. Rates include mouth-watering family style breakfasts and dinners. Those who do not surf can enjoy the swim-friendly beaches up from Maderas or spend time reading or doing yoga on the lodge's sprawling sundeck. The most memorable parts of my stay though were the amazing owners and guests I met at BVSC.
Playa Gigante’s quite bay harbors old school pangas from the fishing families that inhabit this charming village. The coastline features small hostels, two surf camps, and a handful of restaurants that serve up fresh caught fish and local produce. Perfectly located walking distance from world class surf breaks, and beginner shore breaks alike, Gigante is the real deal, especially for those looking to escape the hustle and rapid development of San Juan del Sur.
During our Costa Rica expedition one of our destinations was Sarapiqui. While in Sarapiqui we got to do so many cool things! We went on multiple nature walks, we went river rafting, and we even got to do a project with some of the locals. The local high school was about a ten minute drive, and when we got there we found out we were going to help them paint around a pool. We really got the chance to connect with the locals. The language barrier was difficult at first, but eventually we figured out how to communicate. After 2 or 3 hours of hard work we got to eat lunch, and see how different there cafeteria was. We even got to play soccer with them! We had some good players on our team, and although they won we put up a good fight. When we first arrived I think the kids thought they wouldn't like us. But after our hard work, and our fun game of soccer, both groups got to experience something new. So many things are different, but high school is the same. It really put into perspective how similar our cultures are in many ways. The picture above shows two cultures uniting, this needs to happen more often. Learning AFAR, in partnership with Global Explorers, promotes cross-cultural exchange by sending students on trips to experience other parts of the world. Sponsorship assistance from the Pearson Foundation, Schlumberger, and Wimmer Solutions makes the trips possible. Donate at afar.com/foundation.
The Cathedral of Leon should be a must see when you are in Nicaragua. As an architect I loved this site and really appreciated the stories behind the historic architectural design. The Cathedral was constructed between 1747 and the early 19th century and most of it's historical integrity is original. It's the largest cathedral in Central America, and was designed to withstand the earthquakes. I could write more about the architecture, but would suggest the UNESCO site where they describe it accurately enough for an expert or hobbyist. Side note: the famous poet Rubén Darío has a tomb here, and he seems to be extremely (underlined) popular among all the Nicaraguans. He also has a home in Leon which has been turned into a museum, another great historical place to see in Leon.
A two-hour drive from Granada, in the village of Gigante, 16 sustainably built treehouses with plunge pools and outdoor showers await guests. Classes are held on a huge beachfront platform. Every stay includes one wellness class (meditation, yoga, or a raw foods consultation). Throughout the year, visiting yoga gurus lead retreats. Seven-night yoga retreats from $1,850, including meals, activities, and workshops. (509) 456-7737, aquanicaragua.com. Image courtesy of Aqua Wellness Resort. This story appeared in the January/February 2012 issue. Find other yoga retreats:Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga InstituteKripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Massachusetts Jicaro Island Ecolodge, NicaraguaGaia Retreat and Spa, AustraliaComo Shambhala Estate, BaliAnanda, IndiaDomaine de la Grausse, France
I've never seen avocados as big as the ones that come from the 'fincas' (rural farms) around León (map in the background). Just this one fruit--large enough for an entire bowl of guacamole! Nicaragua's volcanic soil--about as fertile as it gets...
The Merced Church offers visitors a quiet respite and bird's eye view of the magical city of Granada. As first European city in America, Granada was founded in 1524 and today is filled with color, music, activity, cafes, restaurants and a thriving ex-pat community.
Dense jungles and white-sand beaches have turned a 30-mile stretch of Pacific shoreline into a hot spot among in-the-know wellness seekers. Located north of the beach town San Juan del Sur, the Emerald Coast began attracting yogis with resorts such as Punta Tenoste and Aqua Nicaragua. In February, Mukul resort opened, with 12 villas and 23 treehouse-like bohios. Six spa casitas offer rituals inspired by ancient healing traditions from around the globe. Photo courtesy of Mukul Resort. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
Nicaragua is proud of its volcanoes. We visited this one on a half-day trip from Granada. It's not every day you can look down into a steaming volcanic crater. And you don't even have to hike. You just drive right up to the edge. If you go at night, you can sometimes see glowing lava, but we went during the day and it was still cool. Plus they give you orange hardhats to wear, which my son thought was the best part. On the way up to the crater we stopped to see plumeria blossoms (the national flower) and spotted a motmot (the national bird). We did our trip with Tierra Tours, and our guide's name was Carlos. Carlos gets a big thumbs-up.
It felt nice to walk into the Hotel Dario. The trees and fountain in the courtyard make you immediately forget the heat of the street outside. The tile work and staircase showed a craftsperson's touch. The rooms were simple, but clean and spacious. The small pool was just right for a late-afternoon cool-off. The café served a hearty breakfast of Nica classics (rice and beans, plantains, fried cheese) or pancakes. The location was ideal, right on the main pedestrian street, just a few blocks from the main square. The staff was friendly. We were glad we stayed there.
It’s easy to be zen at this secluded sustainable resort located on a tiny island in Lake Nicaragua. Guests arrive via a ten-minute boat ride from the colonial town of Granada. Once on island, activities range from kayaking around the lake to lounging in a hammock on the deck of one of the nine casitas. Yoga is offered every day on a lakeside platform that looks out to the Mombacho volcano. Well-known yoga instructors host week-long retreats throughout the year. From $290 per night. 50/(5) 2558-7702, jicarolodge.com. Photo courtesy of Jicaro Lodge. Find other yoga retreats:Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga InstituteKripalu Center for Yoga and Health, MassachusettsAqua Wellness Resort, NicaraguaGaia Retreat and Spa, AustraliaComo Shambhala Estate, BaliAnanda, IndiaDomaine de la Grausse, France
After nearly three centuries of lying dormant, the San Cristóbal volcano in NW Nicaragua began waking up in the early 1970's. Since then, steam and ash periodically plume from its crater. At 5725ft/1745m, it's Nicaragua's tallest volcano. A good place from which to view the mountain is the roof of the Cathedral in León, twenty-some miles away. Climb up the steps in the north bell tower and maybe the volcano will treat you to a display...
If you're visiting Nicaragua, you shouldn't miss Matagalpa - a beautiful, mountainous, cool area where you can hike around the Selva Negra nature reserve and take coffee or cocoa tours. The Selva Negra also has an on-site restaurant with an outdoor deck overlooking a small lake, perfect for bird-watching. You can sit outside during your meal and enjoy the view, or take a walk around the lake to the special "birdwatching patch" to commune with some local geese.
Located just outside the colonial city of Granada are two spectacular natural wonders. The first is the volcano Mombacho, which is usually hiding behind cloud coverage. An old Russian troop carrier will take you up the mountain where you can still see the steam coming up from the earth. The view is breathtaking. The second is the Laguna de Apoyo a volcanic lake. The water is like silk and filled with minerals. Its about three miles wide and extremely deep. Lava rocks and thermal heat can be found on the shores. Thankfully the Nicaraguan government has prohibited motorized watercraft in it.
This market is a must walk through if you are visiting Masaya or nearby. After seeing the volcano, we stopped by the market where there are hundreds of local artisans selling art, jewelry, clothing, goods and fresh fruit. The scene is an incredibly colorful display in an old market building, where the sellers' tables overflow beyond into the streets nearby. We visited a few other local markets in nearby villages and I thought this one in Masaya was the best. If you are looking for fresh fruit, authentic art, handmade silver or traditional wood crafts this market gives the most options.
When we visited Nicaragua, we were fortunate to be there over New Year's Eve, and to celebrate the holiday the way the Nicaraguans do. Late on the 31st, the celebration began with fireworks at the beach. We made our way through total darkness with the help of torches set along both sides of the path. We were given masks to wear and sparklers to wave, and walked along the beach until midnight. Once midnight had arrived, staff members lit a fire around a stuffed effigy. He represented all that was negative about the old year, and as we watched it burn, we were asked to let go of all the negativity we might carry with us from the previous year, so we could begin the new year on a fresh note.
Just down the coast by boat is the fishing village of Santa Margarita del Carmen. A few bars, an empty perfect white sand beach, cold cervezas, and friendly locals.
The beautiful lobby area of the resort is the perfect place to have a drink and enjoy a book, or hang out with friends. I couldn't get enough of the decor at the property, everything has that elegant but still casual beach vibe. Wonderfully relaxing in a beautiful setting. Can't wait to get back!
Unless you rent a car, arriving at La Sombra Ecolodge way up in the mountains of Matagalpa requires a couple of rides in packed chicken buses followed by 45 minutes in a bouncy cab along a semi-paved road. But just look at this little, green guy - he alone made the trip worthwhile! In addition to the ranario ("froggery") where you can see these green tree frogs, they have a butterfly observatory, and coffee groves where we saw several varieties of toucans and parrots on an early morning birding walk. The lodge is comfortable and the food is delicious. And if you are a coffee geek like me, it's also a great place to learn about coffee (and drink it too, of course). The staff is more than happy to give you a tour of the coffee groves and processing facilities.
Perched high above a breathtaking rock masterpiece in the town of Las Salinas sits Magnific Rock Hotel, an inviting wooden lodge with the best sunset view on the Pacific coast. Surfers flock here for the legendary Popoyo break, but also for Santana's, both of which are easily scouted from the 270-degree panoramic view from the top. Rice and beans can do for only so long. By the time you arrive at the Rock, you've likely forgotten that fresh, organic food is an option. From lobster curry and spinach salad to rib eye steak and cous cous, the food is nothing short of orgasmic. Featuring farm fresh, organic herbs and vegetables from the hotel garden, fresh fish and lobster from the ocean below and locally sourced meat and grains, the healthy, creative fusion menu of the Australian chef will undoubtedly make the one of the best meals you have in Nicaragua. Sunset cocktails & dinner at the Rock is a must. Stay a night – or 10 – and indulge in the warm, uncrowded waves. Before you know it, you'll be one of the many long-term guests. With a staff so friendly you'll soon feel like one of the family, it's not hard to imagine settling in for a few weeks. Yoga retreats, guided surf trips, massages and excursions are all available. From $20/night. +505 8608 5818. From Rivas, take a taxi (about 45 mins.) or hop a chicken bus into Las Salinas. Photo: Charlie Brown
Definitely off-the-beaten path, the Treehouse requires precise directions, good pronunciation and a firm will to find. Hop on the bus or take a collectivo from Granada towards the coast about 15 minutes from town, ask to be dropped off at "Poste Rojo" and you'll find a road that goes through a field and up into the hills of the jungle. You'll know you're on the right path when you reach a staircase on a steep vertical. The company is eclectic, the staff are demonstrably having the time of their lives, a fantastic playlist is always provided and the hammocks are a-swinging. Playtime has arrived. Welcome to the treehouse! A long, suspended footbridge runs from the main hangout area over to a beautiful yoga deck that overlooks jungle with a killer vantage point. No matter how hard guests seem to jump, the bridge refuses to snap, so have at it. Howler monkeys can be heard in the not-too-distant trees and colorful birds spotted swooping in arcs, while the frogs' and toads' beeps and beats weave together for a surprisingly apt rendition of the Star Wars theme. The treehouse offers hammocks and dorms, and private rooms, casitas and treehouses, from $4.50/night. The non-hammock options feature gorgeous wooden beds with incredibly comfortable mattresses. The intimate community, family-style dinners, attentive staff and playful vibe is a refreshing experience from your run-of-the-mill stop.
You may not know it, but in the middle of Lake Nicaragua – a lake that makes Lake Tahoe seem like a swimming pool, lies the magical island of Ometepe. It’s home to not one, but two volcanoes, a seemingly endless shoreline and a plethora of organic farms. The island is both an agricultural hub and tourist destination. Many families here are members of cooperatives which give them the opportunity to grow their own food and sell what they don't eat. Much of the coffee grown here is of the highest quality, according to US and Canada standards, and is exported and sold abroad. While you're here, you have to climb the Maderas Volcano -- a six hour grueling climb. At the summit you can cool off in the lake at the center of this dormant volcano. Don't expect a view from the top, as the top of this volcano is almost always shrouded in clouds. When you're not climbing the volcano, I recommend checking out El Punto, a local swimming spot in Balgue. Just ask a local where it is.
A string of random events had landed me with a house/dog sitting gig in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Every morning at 5am, before the temperature climbed well into the 90s I took the dog for a walk up the dusty road, greeting happy workers biking into work and children waiting to go to school. One morning a mare appeared out of nowhere. Hooves pounding the ground at a full gallop, she disappeared as quickly as she'd appeared, in a cloud of dust. A beautiful morning in Nica.
Guests at Jicaro Island Ecolodge, a nine-casita resort in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, can kayak around the lake's 365 islets which formed when the Mombacho volcano erupted thousands of years ago. Early morning is the best time for spotting birds like Montezuma’s Oropendula, Ringed Kingfisher, Purple Gallinule, and Northern Jacana. I took this shot just after sunrise. Mombacho is looming in the background and two local kids are casting nets for fish.
Playa Maderas is a popular beach for surfing in San Juan del Sur. The unruly winds this day created choppy waves that were not ideal for surfing.
Our neighbors and friends in Nicaragua must have been bemused as my wife and I took note of every plant, flower, and fruit; imagine someone oohing and aahing over apples, right? But we SHOULD ooh and ahh when we learn the origin of things--THIS is how cashews grow. See the comma-shaped appendage dangling on the end of the bell-pepper-like fruit? Inside that shell (which is toxic, by the way), is one raw cashew. Late March in Central America, red, orange, or yellow 'cashew-apples' (called 'marañón' in Nicaragua) hang like ornaments on these evergreen trees. You can eat the fruit--juicy and astringent--but the treasure is in the hard end-piece: one nut per fruit, and it must be roasted to de-toxify it... (Botanically, cashew-trees are related to poison-ivy!) [Brief Spanish-language lesson--where to say what: in Spain, these nuts are called "anacardos," in northern Mexico, "nuez de la India," and in some parts of South America, "castaña de cajú." From southern Mexico through most of Central America on into the northern Andean countries: "marañón.")
With my rudimentary Spanish, I hadn’t understood why a local suggested wearing long pants to the night’s festival. “Because of the fireworks,” she had said (I thought). The recommendation seemed odd considering the stifling heat and humidity. But a few hours later, I was glad I complied. Standing in a frenzied crowd in front of the cathedral in the main plaza of León, Nicaragua, balls of fire from roman candles shot past me, and I was thankful for the extra coverage. The throng was gathered around three men who danced around the square wearing wooden, box-like contraptions on their heads with roman candles protruding from all sides like quills on a porcupine. A long fuse linked the pyrotechnics, which blasted into the crowd from all angles. The three men were a glowing blur of fire and sparks, all brilliantly mirrored in the wet pavement from a recent rain. The entire plaza was a riot of flashes, shrieks, smoke, marching band clatter, and the gut-rumbling booms of larger rockets. León’s unique la Gritería Chiquita (“Small Shouting”) festival gets off to a surprisingly low-key start each 14th of August at dusk. Mass is held in the majestic Spanish Colonial cathedral, which is flanked by imposing statues of the town’s namesake lion. The somber start befits a festival that began as a symbol of penitence after a local priest’s prayers were allegedly answered in 1947 when nearby volcano Cerro Negro was threatening certain doom. León survived, and a colorful festival was born.
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