Before I dive into my love for Nicaragua, I have to confess that my journey there was and is far from complete. I believe that any journey in a new place is never complete, for there’s always more to see, learn and explore, but my own in Nicaragua is far from it.
Far from it because I didn’t explore it in a way that makes me comfortable to say I saw a large variety of it. I didn’t visit the bustling metropolis of Managua. I didn’t walk barefoot along the whitewashed domes of Our Lady of Grace Cathedral in León. I didn’t time travel to when pirates were abundant and ransacking Granada.
But, what I did do was experience the beauty of Ometepe and San Juan Del Sur (SJDS), two places that are worth a visit as much as any of the others
At first glance, San Juan Del Sur could be seen as your typical Central American surf town (like Jaco or Tamarindo in Costa Rica). And, while there are multitudes of bleached-haired tourists milling about the town, taking part in SJDS’ notorious “Sunday Funday,” or chowing down on greasy burritos and tacos, I noticed something unique about the town.
Unlike many other places, there was no clear delineation between the lifestyle of the locals and that of the tourists. This may be an odd claim, but bear with me. I saw tourists and locals mixing together in the streets as you would see two neighbors chatting on a Saturday morning in a suburban town in the States.
Instead of Nicaraguans isolating themselves to an exterior part of SJDS, they lived within the bustling town itself and felt comfortable doing so without any apprehension or resentment towards their foreign visitors. This is what I’m trying to capture. This atmosphere of acceptance and amicability. An unforced coexistence. It’s something that is truly rare. In many places, there’s this feeling of “us” and “them.”
An obvious (and often warranted) resentment on the part of the locals towards the tourists for increasing prices, throwing up in their streets and everything else they bring with them. Or, if not resentment, a feeling of opportunity, where every tourist is the embodiment of a cash register and all locals flock towards them to max them out before everyone else does. I didn’t feel any of this in SJDS.
The food is delicious (I was addicted to a taco spot on a corner – sorry, that’s my best description), chicken buses are a way of life and the market has everything you want. Aside from that, the main park has surprisingly quick wifi and, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you can hear a man screaming “Jugo de Naranja!” every morning as he pushes his cart down the road.
Travel Video of Nicaragua (animator: Rachel Olney)
The Island of Ometepe
The hour glass-shaped island of Ometepe is a truly magical place. The best way to get there is by a $1.50 ferry ride from San Jorge, to which you can get a cheap taxi ($2) to after taking a bus to Rivas from SJDS.
It’s simply stunning. The streets are all made out of interlocked cinder blocks, which make you think of the yellow brick road from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Horses are everywhere, and you can rent scooters (don’t pay more than $17 / day), bicycles or walk around barefoot from place to place. The hostels are out of this world, especially the sprawling Zopilote, which has a brick-oven pizza night on Tuesdays and Thursdays that can’t be missed.
Aside from the hostels and the horses, the island’s main draws are its volcanoes and the majestic San Ramon Waterfall. I didn’t have enough time to hike the volcanoes, but I heard both Concepción and Maderas are worth it.
What I did do was take a scooter to the San Ramon Waterfall, which was even more stunning than I had imagined. When you arrive, there’s a sign that says you’ll have to hike for about 45 minutes, but it’s more like 1.5 hours. After hiking through a humid, but beautiful and lush, jungle, you’ll meet a wide river with large boulders and, after a few more minutes of hiking, see the wonder that is the San Ramon Waterfall.
Highly, highly recommended even if there are hundreds of bees everywhere. The Ojo de Agua was a bit overrated, but cool to check out. What I recommend most is to rent a scooter and spend a few days riding around the entire island – you won’t be sorry.
As I said, my journey in Nicaragua was and is far from complete, which means I’ll certainly be back. If you’re in Central America, you must go. If you’re not in Central America but have thought, “Is Nicaragua worth visiting?” you must go. If you don’t fit into either of those
categories, you must go. It’s a beautiful place with extremely kind and hospitable people and there’s no shortage of adventure (and tourists, but still).
Mateo Askaripour is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanoes in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working.