Nicaragua is an undiscovered tourist location which placed third in The New York Times’ suggested places to visit in 2013. I happened to be in Liberia, Costa Rica during March, 2014 and decided to book a one day tour to Nicaragua on a whim, not knowing what adventures were in store.
Heading to the Border
Departing early, our bus left Liberia with a tour group composed of fourteen Canadians, one Australian and myself as the only American. Liberia is about an hour and a half drive from the border access point of Penas Blancas on the Inter-Americana Highway. From the Costa Rican side, as vehicles near the border, visitors may see unscheduled police check points and will notice a heavier police presence. Costa Rica has had an influx of immigrants from Nicaragua seeking a better standard of living as average wages in Costa Rica are four times higher than its neighbor. In a country that has faced bad, corrupt governments, international debt and civil war, life in Nicaragua is hard, with jobs difficult to come by. People, however, are friendly and trying to do the best they can where opportunities are limited.
The border post of Penas Blancas is remote and like any frontier outpost, full of local color. Visitors will need to clear both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan immigration and on the Nicaraguan side, there is a tax. While we were waiting for our bus to clear immigration in Nicaragua, we stood in the parking lot where street vendors approach visitors selling goods like belts, sandals, purses, hammocks and snacks. A pig ran through the parking lot adding to the atmosphere. Our group was surprised when a man with what looked like a giant leaf blower approached our bus, wearing a blue jumpsuit and a gas mask. Suddenly, the inside of the bus was sprayed with pesticide for fumigation for a charge of US$5.
US dollars are accepted in Nicaragua but I would recommend having very small bills as any change will be given in Nicaraguan cordobas.
I’ve read several different travel sites about how long it takes to cross between Costa Rica and Nicaragua by road, with some estimates running five hours. My experience was a good one, as the combined crossing between both countries took a total of an hour. It was helpful that our guide had all the paperwork in hand as visitors will need to be sure to have the correct forms, including an itinerary showing a return ticket. Visitors should head to the border early as trucks on the Inter-Americana Highway will be backed up on both sides of the border. We were at the border by 8:00 a.m.
Welcome to Nicaragua
Clearing the border, we headed north on the Inter-Americana Highway toward the town of Rivas. Roads in this area are good and if the weather is clear, visitors will be lucky to see a spectacular view of two volcanoes (Concepcion and Maderas) located on the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. These volcanoes are awe-inspiring, rising majestically from Nicaragua’s landscape. The only word that comes to mind is “wow”.
Numerous ranches are in the area and ox carts are often used for transportation. Visitors will also see three-wheeled taxis (what I would call a “tuk-tuk”) filled with locals sharing a ride, as well as very packed busses.
Entering Rivas, visitors may notice red and black stripes painted on telephone poles as well as red and black flags. These colors are the identifying marks of the FSLN or the Sandinistas, one of the major political parties in Nicaragua. Former Sandinista head, Daniel Ortega, is the country’s current elected president and visitors will notice signs in towns (sort of a “cult of personality”) with paintings of Ortega.
We were also told that while education is now free in Nicaragua, roughly 65% of children attend school. Children may be kept at home to work to help support their family or some families cannot afford shoes for their children to walk to school.
Heading north toward Catarina, visitors will come across a town known for its plant nurseries and handicrafts. The big draw in Catarina, though, is a lookout point at Mirador across the Laguna de Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake. With benches looking down at the water, views are breathtaking. Tourists will enter through a parking lot surrounded with colorful craft shops (selling anything from belts, clothing, paintings, pottery and wooden handicrafts for just a few dollars) and a few restaurants. On the day we visited Catarina, there were a few visitors around, but we almost had the crater to ourselves.
If the weather is clear, visitors will be able to see across to Granada and Lake Nicaragua. The overall effect at Laguna de Apoyo is peaceful and a street musician playing a classic guitar added to the atmosphere.
Sitting on a bench, looking out over the crater, one vendor was explaining that her family designs pottery and it was hard to envision how her family manages with prices of one dollar per vase. The handiwork was intricate and reflected a lot of family pride. This vendor wanted to know where I was from and was surprised to hear it was the United States.
Masaya Volcano National Park
This park includes craters, trails and the very active Masaya Volcano which last erupted in 2012. Visitors will notice rocks and volcanic ashes on entering the park. To me, it was incredible that visitors can look right into the crater which is filled with smoke and sulfur gases. Signs in the area warn that the volcano is active (erupting without notice), and include information on how visitors should protect themselves.
Rangers in green shirts in the area keep a close watch on things. Bilingual signs in Spanish and English warn of parking too close to the main crater, as well as pointing to an evacuation route.
On a cliff above the crater is the Bobadilla Cross, which can be accessed by climbing 177 steps. The day I visited, the stairs were closed as it was considered too unstable (which was a little worrying!). If the weather is clear, the views across Nicaragua are fantastic as the countryside is dramatic. I could see across the Nicaraguan landscape for many miles.
It’s not every day a visitor gets to look into a crater, and I was surprised our bus could go almost to the rim.
Apparently, this park also offers a night tour where visitors can see bats fly from their caves. I didn’t see any wildlife on the day we visited, but the park is inhabited by many species of animals.
As it was now early afternoon, our bus headed to the City of Granada, founded in 1524 by Cordoba. The historic Spanish architecture, painted in vibrant colors, is one of the oldest cities in the western hemisphere. Buildings are painted in two colors and we were advised that each family is assigned a color scheme. For instance, one family might be assigned the color scheme of red with a white trim and any buildings the family owns will be painted accordingly. I was surprised at the vast array of colors from yellows to oranges to purples.
Horse carriage tours are available around the city, stopping at the many colonial churches. Carriage tours run around US$20 and transport visitors back in time.
Granada has suffered pirate attacks during its history as well as civil war but the buildings maintain their colonial character.
We had limited time in Granada and I spent most of my visit at the Iglesia de la Merced. A large plaza outside the church had a few vendors and inside, visitors can climb the tower for US$1. I initially planned to climb the tower, but changed my mind on seeing the steepness of the interior steps. The steps are open and quite a hike. For visitors willing to go to the top, however, views will be rewarded across Granada.
The various chapels within the church are colorfully painted and peaceful. Visitors should be sure to be respectful as locals will be stopping to pray. On a late Saturday afternoon, the church was fairly quiet.
Before leaving Granada, we stopped at the central park to admire the surrounding architecture. A stop by Lake Nicaragua was also impressive and I was surprised to see a white horse walking on the beach.
As it was now late in the day, our bus began heading back to Liberia, Costa Rica. Crossing both borders took very little time and we cleared both countries in thirty minutes. Visitors should be aware that on the Nicaraguan side, there is a departure tax. At this point, the sun was starting to set and our excited group was exchanging stories about what we had seen.
Nicaragua is a country filled with lakes, beaches, volcanic scenery and colonial architecture. While the infrastructure is developing, for those tourists who are willing to overlook this, Nicaragua has much to offer. My visit to Nicaragua is something that I will remember for a long time to come.