When we woke up the next morning, we had slept like in heavens. Not only that our last day’s 15-hour drag through 3 countries and over 300km had made us sleep like babies, but also our beds in Hotel Guardabarranca were simply great! After a quick coffee and internet for breakfast we went for a stroll around town and discovered the beautiful old town of León, one of Nicaragua’s most precious and historically rich cities.
Originally founded right next to Lago de Managua, León was hit by a series of disasters culminating in a major earthquake in 1610, which led to the authorities packing everything up and founding a new Leon 30 further northwest. Leon was poorer then its rivaling close-by cultural and political rival Granada, but the Spanish made it capital of the colonial province. Leon at the time the center for radical clerics and intellectuals who then formed the liberal party (who supported the unification of all of Central America and reforms based on the American and French revolutions!).
Fights between Granada and Leo for the title as capital led to conflicts that raged until 1850, at times erupting into outright civil war. The continuous fighting between the two rivals only stopped when the capital was moved to the neutral city of Managua in 1852.
Good thing they did so: While Managua today is the typical noisy, dusty, suburby, shoppingmally stereotype of a (central) american capital , Leon has preserved its colonial cobblestone charm and marks Nicaragua’s totem of artistic, religious and revolutionary history. In recent years its youthful energy, pumping nightlife and excellent accommodations have made it (together with Granada and Isla Ometepe) one of Nicaragua’s top destination for independent travelers like us who want to get a full-flavoured taste of Nicaragua’s culture. There are heeps of hostels to choose from and a vast quantity of restaurants which all are pretty good (but not always cheap).
When we arrived, leon was just preparing itself for one of the biggest parties of the year: What we had not known and what now made a plausible explanation why we had had such a hard time finding three free beds the night before was that we had just coincided with La Gritería, Nicaragua’s way of celebrating the ascension to heavens of the virgin Mary – traditionally extra big in Leon!
Besides parades, a huge service in the beautiful cathedral, live TV broadcasts and flowery decorations in all streets the Gritería is famous for the tradition that every family puts up a statue of the virgin mary in their entrance door where peasants would then shout ¿Quien da tanta alegría? (Who gives us so much joy?) and receive candy or fruit in exchange.
We spent our first day relaxing and discovering Leon’s cobblestone roads, majestic city squares and and thick-walled colonial cathedrals and while between Johanna and me chemistry was getting more and more fantastic (if that’s even possible!) things started to become more and more difficult with Riikka. Understandably she felt like the fifth wheel on our travel group and she was becoming visibly more and more uncomfortable with the fact of traveling with a couple that has freshly fallen in love and is maybe behaving too much so: An unfortunate drop of bitterness to our great time in Leon!
Day two and three was reserved for the Gritería and we experienced a glimpse at service in Leon’s cathedral, huge fireworks and lots and lots of madness in Leon’s streets. See pictures.
The true highlight though (at least to me) of our time in Leon was an organized sand boarding excursion which we booked with Bigfoot Hostel (big recommendation!). This crazy excursion consists in a rough 45 minutes ride on a german 4×4 truck which takes you to Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America (having first appeared in April 1850). Cerro Negro raises apron. 700m above sea level and while numerous recent eruptions have left the east flank sprawled with big black rocks and therefore easily hikable, the west side is up to 40° steep and covered in fine, black volcanic sand.
We hiked up the 700m, passing smoking, sulfur-yellow holes and car-sized rocks of hardened lava and then enjoyed one of the most unforgettable panoramas from the top of the creek, overlooking the pacific coastline on one and the Cordillera de los Maribios mountain range on the other side.
The ride down on our sand boards (I actually had hoped for snowboard-like boards and was a little disappointed when our guide pulled out sled-like wooden boards) was PURE MADNESS and a rush of adrenaline I cannot pack into words. You basically sit on a wooden board on the back of which the tour operator glues a small strip of Teflon. Minimal friction, fine black lava sand, 40 degrees steepness, an incredible rush of adrenaline… I’ll make it short: I raced down Cerro Negro at an incredible 80 km/h and only missed the standing speed record by 7 km/h!
The next day we packed up our backpacks again and got back on the road again to continue our big adventure. We had decided to skip Granada, having already taken the max out of Leon we supposed the other colonial gem could not give us enough to justify a stay there. San Juan de Sur on the other hand made a neat station on our way to our next big destiny, the volcano- and jungle-rhich Isla Ometepe on Lago Nicaragua in Southern Nicaragua.
We arrived in San Juan de Sur late in the evening and found all the hostels full. Yet again there was a public holiday we bumbled into and all the hostels were full. After some searching we were lucky and could convince the (lonely-planet-recommended and really neat) hostal Casa Oro to put up 2 mattresses on the floor and let me hang up my hammock so we wouldn’t have to spend the night in our tent. Riikka and Johanna immediately bumped into a group of czechs they had already met in El Salvador before and all of us immediately got along very well. We spent four days in San Juan de Sur but I shall spare you all the details, they’re little interesting story wise. Instead let me quickly tell you about San Juan de Sur, just to give you an impression and maybe a traveling tip if you happened to come through Nicaragua one day.
San Juan de Sur is a touristy, small city by the pacific seaside set on a horse-shoe-shaped bay framed by picturesque cliffs. The charms it offers to a burgeoning population of expats and backpackers are easy to identify: surfing, fishing, a lot of party, hammock-swinging, good rum (flor de caña!), sunset-watching and again: a lot of party. If you’re OK with all that you’ll have a great time in SJ, if you’re looking for culture or local ambience mind you: you may find the place disappointing and exxageratedly gringofied!
When we finally packed our bags in the early morning of December 13th, I was really happy to leave. Not that I hadn’t liked San Juan de Sur and its crazy party vibe but I had been craving nature, solitude, hiking and camping really badly and had been looking forward to our next stop, Isla Ometepe on Lago de Nicaragua, since a long time for these reasons. We took a 15 US$-Taxi to San Jorge
Isla Ometepe is the sort of place that belongs in fairy tales or fantasy novels: an island formed by twin volcanoes rising out of a huge lake. The two large volcanoes are Concepción which rises 1610m above the lake in an almost perfect cone, and Maderas (1394m). Lava flows created an isthmus between them, creating the island which nowadays makes one of Central America’s most stunning natural attractions. The ecological jewel that is Ometepe still is a very unspoiled, rough-and-ready sort of place for the type of travelers who seek pure nature and don’t mind taking it rough for a couple of days: Rocky, steep volcano cliffs, thick, wet tropical jungles, trillions of monkeys, hippy hostals, coffee plantations – it’s all there and much more!
We arrived at San Jorge around 10 in the morning and got on the ferry for the 45min trip to San José del Sur. On the ferry we took out my guidebook to get an idea of what was expecting us and decided to tackle the smaller one of the two volcanoes, Volcano Maderas, right away. I actually wanted to climb Volcano Concepción but the girls convinced me that this 3-day hike might be a little too much for them. Also, nature seemed to be more interesting on the jungle-, monkey- and coffee-covered, smaller Volcano Maderas then on the rocky and rather unfriendly back of Volcano Concepción.
Once in San Jorge we took public transportation to the feet of Volcano Maderas where we could leave our heavy backpacks in Hostal El Zopilote, packed the girl’s backpacks with some proviant for the next days, my tent, a couple of flashlights, water and other necessary things for hiking and took off to make it to the first base camp of Volcano Maderas where we would spend the night. At the hostal we were told that we’re crazy to spend the night up there, it would become really wet and rainy and therefore dangerous. Also, we were told, it’s actually forbidden to climb the vocano alone since a couple of years ago a group of 3 tourists got lost in the jungle. We promised to be very attentions and to camp only at the first base station where we would then join a local guide that would take a group of 5 american tourists up to the peek the next morning. With our tent and provisions on our back and our heartbeat We took off in the late afternoon from our hostel and hearts in our boots we started walking up the volcano. After about 40 minutes of wandering we had to see that it’s indeed impossible to find your way to the first base camp through the thick, jungly vegetation and contracted a young boy at a coffee farmer’s hut to lead us up for the next 3 hours. When we finally arrived at sunset the view was more spectacular then we could have ever imagined: From our camping ground we could not only see all of Lage Nicaragua but also the Volcano Concepción, half of which was in clouds and the thin isthmus which connects the two volcanoes. We put up our tents, had a few bars of hard bread with rum and cookies for supper and crawled into our tents just in time to escape the heavy rain that started falling and shouldn’t stop until early next morning…