January 2021: Nicaragua was one of my first international trips. I first went there when I was a 19 year old college student. My friend and I went to western Nicaragua as part of a church related humanitarian trip to assist doctors and dentists with their medical missions in impoverished rural villages. The people we met were so kind and the experience so powerful that Nicaragua has always left a lasting impression on me and I have wanted to return ever since to try and re-capture some of the magic from my first trip even though that I knew that Nicaragua, now discovered by mass tourism, would likely be much different than what I remembered. 

 

My friend Dan and I on the Pacific in Nicaragua-96

My friend Dan and I on the Pacific in Nicaragua-96

Sandinista Monument-96

Children at a School I Visited-96

Me with a Police Officer-96

About Nicaragua

Map of our route

Traveling to Nicaragua during the pandemic was tricky. Even though it was one of the only countries in the world that never had a lockdown, it did close its borders and cancelled all international flights. The country now ruled by the  Ex-Sandinista leader from the 1980’s, Daniel Ortega, covered up the Covid cases to keep the numbers artificially low, claiming Covid wasn’t a problem for Nicaragua.

 

Sandinista Revolution Statue 

Nicaragua wasn’t eager to let tourists visit.  Already I had tried to visit Nicaragua in the fall of 2020. I purchased airfare that was advertised by the airlines only to discover that the flights were never actuallyapproved by the Nicaragua government; subsequrntly the tickets were cancelled. It wasn’t until January of 2021, that flights officially resumed from the USA. Even though flights resumed they were few and far in between.  Additionally, there were unique entry requirements.  You needed to obtain a Covid test three days in advance and submit the results along with a Covid questionnaire to the Nicaragua authorities within a narrow window of time prior to your trip and hope you would be approved by Nicaraguan immigration. Then you wouldn’t know if you are approved to enter the country until, you are issued a boarding pass at the airport. The same tyoe of  approval was needed to depart the country. Luckily Paula and my friends obtained our permissions and we were on our way.

 

Colonial Town of Granada

 

Day 1 We started the trip by flying to El Salvador from LAX.  Nicaragua immigration required all flights to Nicaragua to arrive through El Salvador via Taca Airlines. This drove the price up for flights. We spent one night at a beach hotel in El Salvador, celebrated Paula’s birthday with sea food on the beach and then the next morning we departed to Managua. Once in Managua airport, we hired a taxi to take us directly to the colonial town of Granada, which is located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and surrounded by volcanos.

 

Paula swimming in our hotel pool, my favorite part of our hotel

We stayed in a 200 year old boutique hotel facing the plaza and a 500 year old church that still showed remnants of fire damage from an attempted invasion by an American-William Walker-who in the mid 1800’s tried to overthrow the Nicaraguan government with a small army and establish himself as the ruler. He ultimately failed after ransacking Granada and was eventually executed.  Our room opened up to balcony overlooking an alleyway and colorful crumbling colonial buildings.

Granada during normal times, would likely be crawling with foreign tourists. Now during the pandemic, we rarely saw any foreigners anywhere in Nicaragua. Instead, most of the people I observed were Nicaraguans traveling domestically within their own country.

During the rest of the day we explored Granada tirelessely by foot, and horse carriage looking at old churches, and stopping to eat at the small restaraunts. Of the towns we visited in Nicaragua, Granada was one of my favorites because it had a small town feeling, was easy to explore with a laid back atmosphere and I also liked the scenery around Granada.

Iglesia Merced Granada, Nicaragua

Iglesia Merced Granada, Nicaragua

Horse carriage Ride Paula and I took around Grenada 

Old Granada Cemetery

Granada Street Scene 

Masaya Volcano

In the afternoon, we hired a taxi to take us to see the sunset at  Masaya Volcano. The volcano has been active for hundreds of years and the indigenous people of the area used to make sacrificial offerings of virgin maidens to the volcano by throwing them into the lava lake. When the Spanish arrived, they believed the lava lake was made of melted gold. A priest attempted to venture to the lava lake to collect some of the gold only to realize  his mistake and returning with severe burns. 

Masaya must be one of the most accessible volcanos in the world. The volcano can be reached by car. Literally from the edge of the parking lot, you can peer down into a lava lake, that depending on its activity level, may or may not be visible.  During normal times, the viewing point is packed with tourists and each group is only allowed a few minutes from the viewing walls but during our visit we were almost alone except for a small group of Nicaraguans blasting ragaeton music from their vehicle. As soon as the sun set, we could see the fiery glow of lava from below and at times hear its swishing in the crater. We also watched as an invasion of little green parrots returned to their homes for the night inside little holes along the crater. 

Paula peering into Masaya Volcano

La Isla Ometepe

 Day 2  Early in the morning we hired a taxi to take us approx. 1.5 hours to the Lake Nicaragua port town of San Jorge. We caught an 8am ferry for the 1 hour ride to the village of Moyogalpa on Isla Ometepe. The ferry is the most common mode of transportation between the islands and the mainland for locals.

The first thing we did when we arrived is ask some of the locals about hiring motor bikes. Before we knew it one guy called a friend who had a friend and just like that someone showed up with motor bikes for us. We arranged to rent three bikes from a local man for 20$ per bike per day with a 20$ deposit.

Public Car Ferry

Ferry Port San Rivas on Isla Ometepe

Riding a motorbike was something I haven’t done in over ten years so I needed to re-discover my skills and comfort level. I especially wanted to be careful with Paula on the back. The main ring road around the island was small but paved and we had to share the road with few vehicles. My friends and I had a blast traveling around the island, passing through rural villages, jungles, fields and the ever present 5,000 foot active Concepcion volcano looming over us. Riding the motorbikes around and exploring freely in retorspect was the highlight of our trip to Nicaragua.

 

Paula and I on our motorbike

We had to be careful not to go too far because the last ferry back to the mainland departed at 4pm and if we missed it we would be stuck on the island for the night.

Our first stop was Punta Jesus Maria, where we walked down a narrow strip of sand through lake Nicaragua with spectacular views of the volcano. Lake Nicaragua is the 20th largest lake in the world and the largest in Central America. Isla Ometepe is the largest island on the lake and is an eco-tourism paradise with cloud forests, pristine lake coastline, animals, and more. I wanted to visit the island before a China built canal connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific to rival the Panama Canal is completed. The ecological impacts of such a canal would be devastating for lake Nicaragua and would change the lake and Isla Ometepe forever.

We relaxed had some ceviche and local beers before setting off on the road again. On the way out from Punta Jesus Maria, I almost wiped out a few times in the slippery sandy parts of the dirt road. Despite a few near falls, riding the bikes was so much fun.

 

Punta Jesus Maria

Our second stop was the jungle and dormant volcanic lagoon of Laguna Charco Verde. The area is a private reserve. What seemed to be common during this trip, we had the place to ourselves. We hiked to the laguna, Paula and I relaxed in the waters off of the shore while Wes and Richard swam across the laguna and back. Howler monkeys were common in the tree tops and we could hear them howling nearby.

Laguna Charco Verde

After swimming in the laguna, we hiked over to lake Nicaragua for another swim. The lake was rough and Wes and I tried to balance on the limb of a tree while the waves lapped across it.  When I first visited Lake Nicaragua in 96, the locals told me that bull sharks lived in the water and had attacked people swimming within a stone throw from the water.  Although it is true that bull sharks do live in the lakeand are dangerous, I wondered how many of them still remain inspite of overfishing. The lake was a dark brown with poor visibility and I didn’t want to swim out too far to meet any bull sharks on patrol.

Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to explore the rest of Ometepe and we had to head back to the ferry port to catch our ferry and return to Granada for the night. We returned to the ferry port, found the owner of bikes and waited for the ferry at a local pub on the lake drinking with some local men. 

Vulcan Conception, La isle Ometepe

Climbing Telicula Volcano at Dusk

Paula on Telicula Volcano watching the sunset

Day 3 We drove to colonial town and old capitol of Nicaragua, Leon from Granada in the early afternoon. As soon as we arrived, we checked into our hotel which was hundreds of years old and met our guide and driver to go to Telicula Volcano. Telicula Volcano only a month ago was erupting lava and I wasn’t sure if we would be able to safely visit it. According to our volcano guide, in the past few weeks it had become peaceful with the occasional outburst of mud and debris into the air.

 

Wes on the Crater of Telicula

We drove a few hours through horrific lava rock roads, which only a four wheel drive vehicle should safely attempt. With this said, it is common to see villagers driving on the same road beat up old vehicles with low clearance and bald tires. 

The hike itself was about an hour to the rim through sharp rock that eventually gave way to loose volcanic sand. At the rim we peered down into a black hole from which we could at times hear the lava and gases churning below.  The crater’s edge was very unstable and consisted of very loose pumice rock and our guide was quick to warn up about getting to close to the edge. 

I’ve Never Seen More Tarantulas and Scorpions in One Place

 I love insects, especially dangerous ones. The area around Telicula didn’t disappoint. I don’t know if it was the perfect combination of dryness and temperature but there was an inordinate amount of scorpions and tarantulas in the area. Some ledges contained holes spread out every few feet which contained tarantulas peeking out. Then to the side of these were scorpions on the hunt. We also saw other creatures like owls and jungle cats on the road.

Lava Cave on top of Telicula Volcano with lots of bats

Tarantula crawling up my leg

Scorpion

Leon and Sandinista Revolution History

 

After the volcano we returned to Leon.  To understand Leon, you need to first learn about the Nicaraguan Sandinistan revolution. Leon has a strong revolutionary past and was the scene of much of the fighting during the 70’s and 80’s and the Sandinista movement was partially founded in Leon.  The Sandinistas were communist revolutionaries borne in 1979 out of the tyanny of the rule of  right wing dictator, Somoza. The revolution (81-89) which divided the country-Sandinista versus US backed Contras, resulted in the deaths of almost  100,000 people. The leader of the Sandinista revolution, Daniel Ortega, is currently the president of Nicaragua. Although the polical party that Daniel Ortega represents, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is no longer hard core communist like it once was, it is still socialist and aligns more with other left leaning counties like Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia than it does with the USA.

Day 4  On our last day, I woke up early and explored Leon. Leon had the most beautiful architecture of all the places I visited in Nicaragua and like all place in this part of Nicaragua, is sorrounded by volcanos.

Beauty pageant in Plaza of Old Colonial Era Church

Leon Street Scene 

Paula and I explored Leon and found all kinds of old historical buildings and we stumbled into one derelict building with bullet holes and revolution era graffiti. Curiosity drew us inside where a few men asked us in Spanish if we wanted to tour the building. Evidently it is now a Sandinista revolution museum. One man said he was a museum guide and to prove it he showed us his Sandinistan Revolutionary ID card. Museums areusually not very interesting to me but there was no doubt that this wasn’t a typical museum tour.

Guide of the Sandinista Revolution Museum showing us that his ID card certifying him as one of the founding revolutionary soldiers.

The television building that the Somosas used to hold and torture Sandinistas during the revolution. This room according to our guide was where heavy fighting occurred and Sandinista captives were lined up in the closet to the left of the photo and executed. Hundreds of bullet holes testify to his story. 

Photo of Sandinistan Guerillas, which included our museum guide when he was young

 Our museum guide claimed to be one of the original revolution soldiers that fought the Samosas in the city of Leon. He very proudly pointed himself out in a group photo (shown in left) of some of the original Sandinistan guerillas.

Afterwards he showed us around the building explaining the war history. He took us to the roof top where we walked along broken aluminum roofing sheets, following him to avoid dangerous areas. He wanted us to see the best view of the plaza.  We could have continued touring with him all day but we had to head back to managua for our flight. Upon our departure, he gave us a Sandinistan flag as a gift and we in return gave him a small tip.

El Fortín de Acosasco/Place of Horrors

Our last stop before heading to the airport and departing home, was an old military fortress in the hills outside of Leon. The concrete fortress was used by the Samosas to hold Sandinista prisoners, torture and execute them. Our driver walked with us through the now abandoned fort and explained to us the history. He showed us the rooms where prisoners were electrocuted, placed in small pits in the ground that were too small to be able to move, and ultimately executed and corpses tossed over the hill into the slopes beyong the fort.

El Fortín de Acosasco León

El Fortín de Acosasco is an abandoned place with an uneasy stillness. It sits on a hilltop overlooking Leon and several active volcanos including Telicula, which we climbed the night before. Nearby a few miles down the road is a huge shanty town where thousands live in card board boxes. I asked why squatters haven’t claimed the fort, especially since there doesn’t seem to be anyone guarding it. My driver stated that no one wants to live in this place. It is a place where unspeakable terrors took place and tortured spirits wander at night. He himself informed me that he has seen shadows and has heard screams from this place.

Paula exploring the fort. The names of the hundreds of Sandinista prisoners that were executed here were written on the walls. 

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