Nicaragua has been on my „places I absolutely want to go to“-list for a long time now. Ever since I started surfing actually and someone told me about the perfect waves and empty line ups and how cheap it is to travel here in comparison to other countries in Central America. So, obviously, it was a done deal that I would go to Nicaragua on my world trip.
Well. Of course high expectations are never good, because the chance of being disappointed is also accordingly high. And I have to admit, I was a little bit disappointed by Nicaragua for several reasons, let me tell you why.
Firstly, I was very surprised about the prices there. I know it’s never healthy to compare, but coming from Asia and California, the prices actually were more like they are in the States and not at all like in Asia. You easily pay 25 Dollars for a bed in a dorm (ok, a very nice dorm) and 15 Dollars for dinner – I can live cheaper in Berlin and that’s not an exaggeration.
This leads me to the second reason, why I had a hard time feeling good in Nicaragua. The more I traveled there, the more I realized how poor the people are. Call me naive, but I didn’t actually know that Nicaragua is one of the twenty poorest countries in the world until I was there and did some research. Now one could say, that you help the people by building up the tourism, but here’s the thing: a lot of places are not owned by locals. A lot of times I stayed at places that were owned by Europeans or North Americans and, as I said, you will pay around 25 Dollars for a dorm and then, 200 meters away, there will be a big family living in a house without electricity and running water under the same roof as the pigs. And I am sitting there, eating my 15 Dollar meal. This is not helping the people in Nicaragua. And I am sorry if this is too honest for some people, but the poverty was really really hard to take for me, especially because the tourism is this weird parallel world.
Which is, reason number three, I didn’t feel like I was welcome here. The country makes it very hard to actually get a real, authentic impression of it. As a tourist, you are supposed to go on the tourist shuttles and stay in the tourist places and eat the tourist food and take the tourist tours and, of course, pay the tourist prices. It is hard to actually explore the places yourself, not only because it is way too expensive to rent a motorbike or any vehicle here. Actually renting a bicycle in Nicaragua is more expensive than renting a scooter in Asia. As a person who loves her freedom, it is frustrating for me being stuck in one place all the time.
What can I say? It didn’t help that the surf conditions weren’t ideal either while I was there…
But, as always, I try to walk through the world with an open heart and if I forget about that for a while, it’s nothing that a little Yoga can’t fix. I still spend more than three weeks in Nicaragua and as long as you are realistic about the things I listed above, you can have a great time there, too.
Here are some things you can do, when in Nicaragua:
1. Have fun days in San Juan del Sur (and it doesn’t have to be Sundays)
San Juan del Sur is known to be the „most touristic place“ in Nicaragua and has gained some fame for its Sunday party called „Sunday Funday“. Even though it is true that a lot of people actually do come to San Juan del Sur to party hard, there is more to this town than this. There is surf, there are beautiful beaches with very charming food places with hammocks and sun beds for the lazy break from surfing, there are actually cheaper food places that are still nice (try the Burrito place on the corner of the main street) and hidden Café, such as ‚Simon says‘, that serves tasty Smoothies in a quiet backyard garden. And if you happen to be in San Juan del Sur on a Sunday, you might as well go to the party – it doesn’t hurt, I promise, it’s just another party…
2. Take a stroll through Granada
Granada is one of those old towns that is perfect for a stroll. Colonial buildings that have slowly lost the bright colours, horse buggies that transport people and all sorts of things, a central square that everybody gathers around and streetfood. To experience real local food, Granada is one of the places to be, just go to the square in the evening. You could take a little boat trip on the Lago de Nicaragua, which is the biggest lake of Central America, before that and drive up on the volcano Masaya after sunset to look down in the crater and see the glowing lava.
3. Surf in Popoyo
Popoyo is a place that I really liked a lot. It is small and everybody just cares about surfing. So people go to bed early in order to get up early to be the first ones in the line up. Even though I heard Popoyo is supposed to be „overrun“, I actually felt the opposite way. Maybe because it was rainy season and the usual backpacker crowd comes in the dry season, but I had the impression it is chilled and laied back and also, there is not much to do but surfing. There are a few surfspots and rumours say you need to be super experienced, which is true if you want to surf the outer reef or the inner reef. The Popoyo outer reef is actually a big wave spot, so this is really super extreme. The inner reef is a challenging reef break that sometimes gets crowded and yes, you should be a good surfer. But, there is hope: a spot called ‚beginner’s bay‘ or ‚Magnific Rock‘ is a mellow point break that doesn’t work very consistently, but when it does, it’s fun. I watched the best sunsets from the water there.
4. Fall in love with Léon:
Surprisingly, Léon was the one place in Nicaragua that I really fell in love with. It is the second bigist city (even though it only has 150.000 inhabitants), University town and cultural centre of the country. Not only did the revolution start there, the poet Rubén Darío lived there and is still admired by many. Most of the things are in walking distance, which is a nice change to actually be able to get around, and you can easily spend hours just walking around and watching, or sitting at the corner Café next to the cathedral. I can recommend to visit the cathedral and definitely climb up, it’s SO worth it. Other than that I would advise you to go see the art museum, eat at the french bakery (Pan y Paz) or go shopping at the ‚Get up. Stand up‘ shop – a clothing label made in Léon. If you need a place to sleep, you should book the Poco a Poco Hostel – it has been my absolute favourite so far in Central America.
5. Hike a volcano:
Once you are in Léon, you are very close to the most active range of volcanoes in the world and this is something that made Nicaragua very special for me. Being able to stand on an active volcano is such an existential feeling and for sure has changed my perspective for a day or two. Visiting the Masaya volcano near Granada was already impressive, but you can only drive up there by car. Hiking up a volcano is much more fun and you can do so many different volcano hikes in Léon, it’s hard to decide. I did the sunset hike up on the Telica volcano and didn’t regret my choice. Standing on the edge of the crater, there is thick smoke coming up, it smells like sulfur and you can hardly breathe. Good thing there is a guy selling beer, so you can moisturize your throat. And then, watching the sun go down behind the volcano San Cristobal, the highest volcano in Nicaragua, is absolutely epic. It left me with the feeling of actually maybe being in the right place in the end…