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Sunday, August 18, 2019

Birthdays, Pool Crawls and Volcanoes in Nicaragua

For those of you who read my recent Costa Rica blog, this is a continuation of the same trip, spending a second week in Nicaragua.  I’d always been interested in Nicaragua since Anthony Bourdain’s episode of No Reservations years earlier.  It’s a country that’s been through so much, a stark contrast from the more “Americanized” areas of Costa Rica I’d visited the prior week.

We had exactly seven days to tour as much of the country as possible and find somewhere fun to celebrate my birthday.  We decided to hit up the beach town of San Juan Del Sur for their famous Sunday Funday pub crawl, then spend some time in the heritage city of Granada before ending the trip at a yoga center near the tiny beach town of Popoyo.  I wish we’d had more time to visit some of the other places I’d heard so much about, but we felt this gave us diversity without spending our whole trip in a car.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

My cousin and I were up and out the door of our Costa Rican villa in Nosara at 7:30am, aiming to return the rental car to the airport in San Jose by 9am.  There are four options for getting to Nicaragua from Costa Rica – taking a chicken bus (cheap, local transport), the Tica Bus (a bit nicer bus option), a taxi to the border (and then hopefully another one on the other side) or fly.  We were trying to get to San Juan Del Sur by 1pm to celebrate “Sunday Funday” for my birthday.  Even if we managed to get through each checkpoint of the trip on the time, we’d barely make it.

We made it to the car rental by 9am, but soon learned that we couldn’t buy a Tica Bus ticket, because the bus office is closed on Sundays.  We didn’t have a cell phone, a laptop or enough Spanish to sort out the chicken bus so we finally gave up and flagged down the only taxi we could find for a ride to the border.  From San Jose, we had the option of $80 flat fee or the meter. It’s an hour ride so we took a chance that $80 would be cheaper.

We arrived at the border at 10:30am to a bit of chaos.  It’s very unclear what line to get in and a man popped up eager to help us through the line (for a fee of course).  Leery of handing my passport to a stranger, we decided to go it alone, which we found cost us 1.5 hours of waiting in line as people who opted for a “helper” went straight through (as did anyone arriving on a bus).  It also meant haggling for a cab to San Juan Del Sur on the Nicaragua side, without much bargaining power.  We agreed on $30 for two people, which was FAR cheaper than anything in Costa Rica.

An hour later we pulled up to the famous, Naked Tiger Hostel, creators of the equally famous Sunday Funday pool party pub crawl. We paid the deposit for a towel and $15 for our pub crawl ticket and quickly changed into swimsuits in our co-ed, 8-person dorm room.  I know I’m probably too old for “party hostels” but man I sure do love them.  There is no easier, better way to make new friends. 

Turns out 1pm was a “loose” start time so we joined the growing crowd of people downstairs at the bar.  The payment policy is both easy, and dangerous – you simply hand over your passport which acts as your “tab” and then pay at the end.  Luckily drinks are Nicaragua-cheap.

Sunday Funday consists of three stops with free drink tickets at each stop and haphazard transportation in between - just jump in the first available truck.  The first stop was Anamar- a Vegas hotel pool vibe.  We arrived with the rest of our dorm roommates who turned out to be a bunch of unruly Australians.  A note to first time travelers – if you’re looking for a wild time, find Australians.

Photo Credit: Anamar / TripAdvisor

Anamar was pretty fun, but you could tell everyone was still kind of getting to know each other – the classic first stop sussing of any pub crawl.  The next stop was (hilariously) back at Naked Tiger - the perfect casual, cheap pool + bar with a view of the ocean.  The vibe and music were so good we were hesitant to leave for the third bar, since we’d need to find our own way back, but felt we had to “give it go” (Naked Tiger is not in the main town area; it’s quite a way up the hill overlooking town, but worth it.  There are shuttles every 30 mins to an hour).

If you’ve ever been to the main bar street of Cabo San Lucas, you can imagine exactly what Stop #3, Arribas, was like – a lot of very drunk people dancing.  The bar opened directly onto the beach so you could dance, then swim, then dance, then swim.  I’d been told by a friend that pickpockets are a serious problem, especially on Sunday Funday, because of the easy targets, so I was careful to keep an eye on my wallet and camera.  Sure enough, one of the girls in our group woke up to half the money in her purse gone. You don’t need an ID in Nicaragua so at least I didn’t have to worry about my passport.  Also be careful not to drink the tap water!

Photo Credit: Arribas Facebook Page

It was a very fun night and a wonderful birthday and we made a ton of new friends.

Monday, March 5, 2018

We woke up early the next day for some pool time, only to find out that the rowdy Australians had pulled an all-nighter.  One still hadn’t returned from town and the other lamented his “favorite shirt” (purchased a few days earlier) now in tatters.  Unfortunately, the one that hadn’t returned had my camera.  To be honest, I was more worried about him than the camera which had seen its share of good times.  

We spent the rest of our “Monday Funday” watching Jackmatazz and TimmyT perform terrible magic tricks while sipping frozen drinks by the pool.  Turns out the hostel food is really good – I recommend the Nica Lunch, the Chicken Parm Sandwich and the Mixed Bowl.  We learned that it took a collective 106 hours for Jack to get all the tattoos covering his body.

Fairly late in the day, our missing member finally appeared at the hostel.  He’d had quite the adventure… and my camera!  It’s was a scene from The Hangover going through the pictures- he continued to take photos documenting his night.  We all had a good laugh.
The whole hostel was pretty tired, so everyone ordered chicken parm sandwiches from the kitchen and watched a group movie before going to bed.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

We’d planned to play our departure by ear, either staying one more night or continuing on, but our friends were leaving so we decided to book a $15 group shuttle to Granada at 3pm.  Since we’d spent very little time in town, we took the 8am shuttle to see what we’d missed.  We soon learned nothing was open until 9:30am except a tiny taco shop with astoundingly tacos for a couple bucks.  We stopped in a few shops before taking the next shuttle back up the hill – there are a couple cute surf shops, but not much else.

We packed up our things before 12pm so we didn’t have to pay for another night and spent our remaining time by the pool.  I was in shock when I found out my total food and bar tab was only $100 for two full days and nights! The shuttle arrived 30 mins late and was over-packed with people and luggage.  It was a miserable, hot ride.  Sounds snobby, but I wish we’d paid the extra $25 for a private one.

Luckily Nicaragua is a small country (especially to someone living in massive Australia at the time).  It took less than 2 hours to get to Granada and our accommodation, the Granada Casa San Francisco, was so romantic!  It had old world Spanish architecture (like much of the city) with a homey feel.  Our room was small and the bed was not very comfortable, but it was a clean and had character.  We immediately booked the double tour to Lagana Apoyo and Masaya Volcano (an active volcano) at the front desk before they closed down for the day.  It was $32 USD per person – this country is so conveniently cheap after overpriced Costa Rica.

My cousin had lived in Costa Rica and had visited Granada accidentally so she knew of this amazing restaurant called the Garden Café.  We didn’t have a reservation and the restaurant was fully booked, but the hostess took pity on us after my cousin told her how much she loved the place and said if we waited around and had a drink she’d try and sneak us a table.  We lucked out and snagged a small table in the garden area.  The food was delicious and tasted “homemade” which was really comforting after two days of naughty food and drink. We loved the pesto goat cheese appetizer and the salpicon entrée.  And I was introduced to the best pina colada I’ve ever had – it was thick like a milkshake and so flavorful!  It was such a nice night to spend eating great food with my best friend.

Photo Credit: Garden Cafe Instagram

We wanted to go out for a beer, but after walking a few blocks, we both felt a little uncomfortable as two young female blondes.  There were very few people on the poorly lit streets and not much was open, so we returned home for the night.

Wed, March 7, 2018

Breakfast is included at hotel and, my god, get the cinnamon pancakes, they are outstanding.  The coffee in Central America, however, is way too intense for my stomach.

The tour shuttle picked us up at 10am and it was an easy ride to Laguna Apoyo.  The shuttle dropped us off at Paradiso Hostel, which looks out over the lake and is AMAZING.  It’s a multi-level complex that is mostly outdoors and they provide lockers, locks, towels and cards that you use to pay for things and then close out at the end.  You just need to bring a change of clothes to shower, sunscreen, etc.  They have free kayaking and inner tubes on the lake, a paddle boat, massages, mani pedis, smoothies and a huge patio on the lake.  I am 100% staying here next time I visit.

There were quite a few people on the shuttle so make a mad dash to the lakeside to grab a sun chair – they are few and far between.  The next few hours were my favorite part of the whole trip – we tanned and swam and drank frozen drinks on the patio.  I even got a cheap massage with the sun flickering in through the drapes.

The shuttle to Masaya Volcano arrived at 4:30pm.  This would be the least favorite part of my trip – the people in the shuttle were loud, playing terrible music and once you arrive at the volcano you sit for hours in a massive line of cars waiting to be let up the hill.  It’s an active volcano that could erupt at any moment, so they only let a few vehicles up at a time.  I wish I’d known so I could’ve packed some snacks. We were miserable and starving by the time it was our turn to go up the volcano.

Each “round” of cars has 15 minutes at the top to look around before you have to go back down.  I was in the worst mood when I got out of the car, but “wow” looking down into a live volcano, filled with red hot lava, is pretty damn cool.  I definitely had a mild “Frotto” moment.  I recommend walking as far to the right as the fence allows, because that’s where there are the least amount of people and the best view down into the center.

I was pretty satisfied and slept the rest of the shuttle to Granada.  We were too tired from the day to deal with people, and our hotel was so homey, we ate dinner at the bar of the hotel restaurant, Bocadillos.  It was one of the best enchiladas I’ve ever had and oddly the best Sazerac cocktail too (I’m an aficionado of both).  We were lulled into a relaxed stupor by the excellent music and friendly bar staff.  Neither of us wanted to go to bed, but eventually said our goodbyes as our eyelids started to droop.

Photo Credit: Hotel Website

Thursday, March 8, 2018

After packing up and eating another delicious breakfast, we walked through Granada towards the lake for a quick self-guided city tour before our shuttle at 11am to Popoyo.  Granada is such a beautiful, romantic town.  I would totally come back here with a boyfriend.  

This time we had a private shuttle ($80) with AC, which was heavenly.  You might notice that we decided not to rent a car in Nicaragua – we’d heard the roads aren’t well-maintained and people do steal things out of your car when stopped at lights. 

We’d be staying at Magnific Rock, a hostel-meets-yoga center that had been recommended to me by a friend who used to live in Nicaragua.  It’s quite an arresting view on arrival.  The hostel is built into the side of a cliff with the restaurant fully open to the sea.  It’s beautiful!!!  We’d only be staying for one night because we had to get back to Costa Rica the next day for our flight out, but I could’ve spent a week there.  

That is, until we got to our room.  We’d booked The Loft, but there was a yoga retreat so they’d moved us into the Chalet, which is allegedly an upgrade but it was awful – basically a wooden box with no deck and sparse decoration and bedding.  Nothing like the picture on the website. I was pretty pissed, and there were only really nice, very $$$ apartments left, which we decided wasn’t worth it for one night.

We walked down to the restaurant for quesadillas, which were pretty good, and then spent the rest of the day at the pool making friends and drinking beers.  

The hostel is completely isolated from anything else, so you have to luck out with the other people staying there if you want company.  We found a few nice people to chill with for the rest of the night.  One of them was staying in one of the nice apartments so we ended up getting the view we wanted for most of the night anyway… before retiring early to our room.  The sunset was out of this world.

Friday, March 9, 2018

We woke up early to join one of the yoga sessions.  It was on a platform jutting out over the ocean.  The class was relaxing, yet challenging, just how I like it.  We quickly scarfed down another plate of quesadillas, before our shuttle to the border arrived.  I wish we could’ve spent the day wandering the ocean or relaxing by the pool, but the hotel staff said it wasn’t a good idea to get stuck at the border at night, especially without a guaranteed ride on the other side in Costa Rica.

The border ended up being so much easier this time around (yes, we threw some guy a few bucks to slip us through the short line).  Originally, we’d planned to stay right near the airport since we had an early flight, but we weren’t quite done “vacationing” so instead we splurged on a car for $140 (we’re nuts, I know) to drive to a beach for the night instead.  I wanted to go to Tamarindo, but it was too far, so we decided on Playa Hermosa.  We spent the late afternoon at Roberto’s on the beach before eventually hopping in the car to Playa de Coco – we couldn’t afford Hermosa! Turns out Playa de Coco is like Florida – we went to dinner and were the only people under 80 years old!  Luckily, we need to tuck in early anyway.

The next day was an early, easy departure from Liberia airport, ending our trip on a nice high note.  I wish I’d had more time to spend in Nicaragua… it feels like one of the few places left in the Americas that is still a bit wild and entirely foreign for visitors.  The food was delicious, the hospitality outstanding and the natural habitats (and architecture in Granada) were break-taking.  I’d had an amazing birthday, stared a live volcano in the mouth, and practiced yoga on a precipice over an ocean.  I’d say it was a very successful trip and certainly a place I’d like to visit again.

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