I entered Nicaragua almost grudgingly. Guatemala stole my heart, and after a nightmare 19 hour night bus and too many frustrating misunderstandings to go into, we finally arrived in the city of Leon at six in the morning. Unable to check into our AirBnB until 7:30, we wandered the streets trying to find somewhere open for breakfast. Even at that early hour we could tell Leon was seriously, seriously hot, a shock after cool, temperate Guatemala.
Tired, sweaty and pissed off, it’s fair to say I didn’t have the best first impression of this country. “You’re no Guatemala, Nicaragua!”
But what do you know. After a long sleep in a comfy bed, it turns out that Nicaragua is pretty great after all. It didn’t quite enchant me as overwhelmingly as Guatemala did, but I loved our time here, and I wish we could have stayed far longer (that’s becoming the pattern here…).
I knew I’d like Leon when I read about its resident ghost, Toma-tu-teta. Toma-tu-teta was an ample-chested woman but so ugly no-one would marry her. Lonely and bitter, she eventually killed herself. After her death her ghost returned to haunt the city’s men, and to this day (so they say) she wanders the streets at night with one huge boob hanging out of her dress. When men approach her, she smothers them to death with her enormous breasts. Well. There are certainly worse ways to go.
But Leon has a lot more to offer than full-bosomed, vengeful ghosts. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Sandinista revolution and political upheaval came to define this former capital city, and everywhere you turn there are echoes of these struggles in the street art.
Leon is a safe and friendly city, and in many ways feels stuck in the past – but in a good way. The locals leave their windows and shutters wide open in the evenings, and as you walk by you can see them rocking in their chairs watching an old-school TV set with a cat or dog at their feet. Others bring a chair to their front stoop and sit outside watching the world go by, always greeting us with a smile or friendly ‘hola’ as we walk by.
Leon is famous for its enormous baroque cathedral, the largest in all Central America. Considering Leon is such a small city, the grandeur of this cathedral seems inexplicable. The story goes that Leon citizens originally submitted plans for a far more unassuming building, then, once the Spanish approved it, decided “To hell with it” and just built the cathedral the way they wanted.
The best thing about the cathedral is the roof, which you can climb onto for $2. The views from here are incredible, and the white domes against the blue sky is straight out of Santorini. But once you spot the volcanoes that form the backbone of this region, their perfect cones silhouetted against the horizon, there’s no mistaking where you are .
Speaking of volcanoes, in Leon I missed out on the one activity I was desperate to do in Nicaragua: volcano boarding. Leon is the only place in the world where you can slide down an active volcano on a board at 60kph. Unfortunately for me, I woke up the morning we were due to do it with awful stomach pains that didn’t ease up, and in the end Tom went by himself.
In Leon we stayed at a lovely AirBnB run by a French couple, Camille and Maelle, who served up a delicious pancake breakfast in the morning. Camille is a keen surfer who will loan you some boards and take you out to a little-known surfing beach for a small fee, so we took advantage of that one afternoon. Tom improved his surf game and stood up on the board (woo!) but unfortunately it was all too brief to get photo evidence of. Surfing looked too much like hard work to me (so much getting on, falling off and climbing back on again…) so I got my kicks bodyboarding instead.
Granada & Laguna Apoyo
After six nights in Leon we moved onto Granada, the country’s showcase city and the most popular tourist destination by far. It was very beautiful – lots of bright colours and colonial architecture and cool restaurants – but for me it lacked something Leon didn’t. Perhaps because it caters a little too exclusively to tourists, it doesn’t quite feel real. Despite Leon’s popularity with tourists, it always felt like a real city: raw, complex, and a little gritty.
But we were only in Granada for one night, as a jumping off point to get to Laguna Apoyo, a geothermal crater lake about 20 minutes from the city. We only learned about this lake from Camille, our AirBnB host in Leon (thanks Camille!), and it was one of those last minute decisions we made that turned out to be one of the best things we did in Nicaragua.
There was a mix-up with the shuttle we booked to go to the laguna, so the tour company (Adelante Express) sent a private car for us. This was great – partly because the car was air-conditioned, but also because our driver was nuts. He danced constantly in his seat as he drove, looking across to Tom in the passenger seat while making intense, meaningful eye contact all the while. It was like he was hoping his enthusiasm would rub off and Tom would join in the bopping. No such luck. We’re Brits, pal!
Laguna de Apoyo is just beautiful, and we stayed in the most gorgeous AirBnB looking right over it. Surrounded by a tree-blanketed crater rim, the laguna is a deep, bright blue, and the water is naturally heated – 27C degrees, which in Nicaragua is still cool enough to be refreshing. No boats are allowed on the lake and when we went down for a swim (accompanied by Rambo the dog) we were the only people there at all – just the way we like it.
As we floated alone in the clear water it was so weird to think we were less than 20 minutes from busy, bustling Granada. It was a sense of peace and solitude I don’t think we’ve felt anywhere else so far; Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, for all its dramatic beauty, is full of other, like-minded travellers. In the evening we had drinks on the porch with Brian and Mary, our lovely AirBnB hosts, which was the perfect position to watch the sunset over the laguna.
I have no idea where I want to live when we’re done travelling, but man what I would do for a view like theirs. A place where you can sit outside your home with a drink at the end of the day and, cliched as it is, just be, without any distractions or interference. It’s so peaceful here that in the evenings the only noise you can hear is the incessant chirp of the cicadas, and sometimes the call of a howler monkey from the trees below (which Tom and I now recognise without freaking out).
San Juan del Sur
Our final stop off in Nicaragua was the longest: San Juan del Sur. San Juan del Sur is the biggest backpacker spot in the country – a beach town full of cool bars and restaurants surrounded by ancient volcanic hills. What it might lack in genuine Nicaraguan authenticity it makes up for in fun-factor, and we ended up staying a few more extra nights than planned.
Make no mistake: San Juan del Sur is definitely a party town. The town hosts an infamous Sunday Funday bar crawl, which in the end Tom and I decided we were just a bit too old for. Even in the days of fresher’s week I wasn’t a fan of the group drinking trips (I’ll drink what I want, when I want, thanks) and just because they give you a free T-shirt and put glitter on your face doesn’t make it any more fun. So, about to turn 28, I dismissed the Sunday Funday and we partied in our own way. Who says you can’t go clubbing with just your boyfriend??
While 28 might have felt too old for Sunday Funday, we definitely weren’t too old to party hard. Despite our hangovers the next day, we still managed to hike up to the world’s second largest Jesus statue, the Cristo de la Misericordia (Christ of the Mercy), which overlooks San Juan del Sur. The climb was incredibly steep and very difficult in the 35C heat, but getting to the top was so worth it. We got there at the perfect time, just as the sun was beginning to drop and vultures were circling overhead.
Looking down at the San Juan del Sur bay below, watching the boats on the water and hearing the faint reggaeton music breezing up to us (even from that distance – Nicaraguans are loud), I felt sad to leave. It’s like the ache you get at the end of a dream holiday, but it feels all the more acute because it’s not a holiday, it’s life now. And at some point it will have to go back to reality – and I really, really don’t want it to.
Still, no point feeling blue about it now when we have at least nine months of this left! Costa Rica is up next: in a country where a chocolate bar costs $3 and three pieces of fruit costs $9, will our budget survive? That remains to be seen…