What to Expect
They use the Cordoba. There are many fakes floating around. Most people will accept the fakes as well as the real currency. Or at least in May 2012 we had no trouble.
We were in Nicaragua for 2 weeks in May 2012, exclusively in the south pacific region. The south pacific had not started its rainy season yet (something about how everything is a little less predictable as their climate seems to be changing), so it was beautifully sunny and hot and wonderful. The southwest is arid and the sun is quite strong so be ready. For any other time of year, do check with your guidebook or wikitravel.
We found that in the south pacific of Nicaragua, there was an impressive culture of honest lying. Honest lying in my definition is that the people will lie to your face about anything, and everything, in order to get their desired outcome because they believe what they say. This can range from border crossing requirements, bus schedules, and locations of entire cities to open restaurants and the laws and regulations of the country. The thing that is hard to take is that this is an understood facet of life in Nicaragua and people know how to operate within these parameters. They do not want to cause harm or stress by their lying (and sometimes it is actually in your benefit to not know the truth), they just seem to think that the answer they are providing should be the truth. In fact, they seem to believe this so strongly that they cannot understand how you could not see it too, even when the proof to the contrary is glaring them in the face (for example: there are no busses running today because it’s a holiday is a statement that was defended by our taxi driver as we passed a bus driving on the road).
This also means that directions are rarely if ever correct. They will be convincing, trust me. They are also incorrect. Ask at least 3 people for each place new you want to go, and just keep following where they point. Eventually, you will get there (and see often the whole town! While carrying everything you packed! Trust me, just buy the pastry you walk by, take the bathroom break and keep going… not that you really have any other choice.).
There has also been a very recent history of violence and war set up and funded by western (largely USA) driven political intervention. Also, this is just one instance of centuries of practice of meddling in Nicaraguan affairs with disastrous results. This should lead western travelers with more respect and humility. Understand what our politics do and have done to the family and friends of the people you are meeting, because it can be quite personal.
In the two areas we visited there were large expatriate community, but expect to speak some Spanish. There is at least a basic understanding of English among the people who interact with travelers, but many are language shy and appreciate a traveler making an effort (and maybe even a fool of oneself!) as well.
Where to go
San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is a tourist beach town. Full of everything that a European or North American tourist would need, and all the petty theft that they don’t. Be aware, enjoy, and don’t take valuables away from your locked storage areas unless you can keep an eye on it. San Juan has a brown sand beach and gentle waves in the cove it sits on, and there is a small hike to a statue on the hill above town that is said to have nice views (said to be a bit robber-y). The main draw? There’s some good surf just outside town and public transport buses that will take you there (or hitch a ride with some surfers)!
How to get there
We crossed the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border on a “holiday” (see lying paragraph above), and the process was a bit unorganized. They had everything in place to herd us across the border (tall chain link fences, barbed wire, men in uniform with large rifles…) but left us to wander about like lost lambs within its confines. Good news is we were used to the lack of good directions inherent in Central America and just kept asking any person we saw to direct us to the right places. The fee to enter (after exiting Costa Rica, finding the right army official to check our passports, getting to an immigration check, and then finally ending at the payment office) was around $25 each. There is an ATM to pull out Cordoba on the Nicaragua side of the border, follow all the steps to enter, apply to pay, go get the cash, then return to line again. It’s ridiculous, but they charge less if you pay in Cordoba (or just whip out the USD or Costa Rican Colones).
From the border it’s about a 3 hour “chicken” bus ride (or at least that was what I was lead to expect, we had the taxi ride which was about $5, see lying paragraph) which at the time was quoted to cost around $0.65. Bargain! (It may be such a bargain because these are often full to bursting with everyone and their chickens.) Try to pay at the end, ask if your bus is direct or if you have to transfer, and definitely ask them for hotel or food recommendations if you need them (in Spanish).
Where to stay
We stayed in town at the Hostal del Oro (or something to that effect) and there are a variety of different hostels nearby. The great thing about the hostels is that they are within walking distance to the in town beach and if they are full they often will rent you the couch or hammock to sleep on for the night (this is what we did). The bad news is that they are near the town beach (so are full of drunk European and North American tourists wanting to party and lay out in the sun) and they often will rent you the couch or hammock to sleep on for the night (so the places are crawling with people, and are loud and almost always full in high season).
We recommend staying out of town either in the cute places along the main road into town or out at the local surf breaks there are a few very small places, likely best to check ahead.
What to do
Surfing!! also, there is a tourist party/sun worshipping culture which isn’t too intense and can be easily enjoyed. We went out to Playa Madera, which was a good beginners’ spot. The waves are (obviously) very dependent on swell and season, so the best people to ask for breaks, size, and when to go out are obviously the locals carrying or renting out boards.
This island always comes up on our top lists for the entire trip. H was so inspired to take pictures every day that after 3 we had discussed needing a new memory card. Then I threw her camera into the ocean…
So we have no photos… But please picture the two volcanos sitting over a massive lake (a lake so large, in fact, in features heavily into the plans for a Nicaragua Canal) that stretch into the tropical horizon. Both are open for some beautiful hikes, but the taller, Volcan Concepcion, is also ACTIVE! How often can you legally hike up an active volcano? Alright, they do suggest taking a local guide on all the island hikes (and I do for Concepcion), but there were quite a few people out there on their own when we were following our guide (hire Ronmel Cruz if you can, he speaks Spanish clearly and will experiment with English if you ask. Plus, he’s awesome!).
How to get there
We took a ferry or launcha from San Jorge near the town of Rivas (one of those ask every person until you find the bus that doesn’t exist or a taxi that isn’t charging gringo prices to get to the embarcadero). They charge a tax of 10 Cordoba to access the boats, and the ride across is about $2-3, depending on the size of the boat you’re taking.
You land in Moyogalpa, and there are many places to stay in the port town. Or just jump on the bus that circles around the two volcanoes and hop off when you’ve found a spot that speaks to you.
Where to stay
We stayed with the most adorable old man in a hostel called San Fernando, just outside the tiny town of Playa Santa Domingo. This is at the halfway point between the two volcanoes. He let us use his kitchen, we had our own little bungalow and could walk straight down to the empty beach.
In Moyogalpa we set up camp in the driveway of a local family, and paid $2 to use their kitchen and bathroom. It’s at the port and at the foot of Volcan Concepcion, so it’s a good location for landing on the island or for the hike up the beast, like we did. There are a lot of restaurants in the town catering to tourists, so expect slightly higher prices and good quality.
There is also a nice community village at the base of Volcan Madera, where you can explore a lot as long as you look at maps, take a guide, or go really early and prepare to possibly get lost and need to emergency camp.
What to do
Hiking up volcanoes of course! Also, relax on the lake beaches and splash about. There’s talk about lake sharks, but it’s pretty shallow and no one I talked to has ever seen one. And we talked to a lot of people about this because I was really excited about the idea.
To hike Volcan Maderas there are many different paths, and most are well maintained. You are told that officially you need a guide, but I’m sure this is done often without them. There’s a muddy and cold lake in the crater at the top, and some very pretty views when the fog isn’t heavy.
Between the two volcanoes is a hot springs fed pool called Ojo de Agua. The volcanic nutrient water is warm and only slightly sulfur smelling, and it’s set in a pretty grotto behind some cow pasture. It’s like a spa or water park in that you pay an entry and then they also had food and drink for sale for high prices. But it’s really relaxing…
The best hike is undoubtedly up Volcan Concepcion. The first half of the hike is uphill on a well maintained path through some farming and jungle. This is the safe portion that is definitely worth the view and not really needing a guide. The second half is scrambling over loose volcanic rock straight up to the crater, where the toxic fumes are always pouring, the wind is biting, and the views can take your breath away (could also be those toxic fumes… bring a handkerchief!). We suggest a guide (Ronmel if he’s available, they can’t go up too many times a week because the fumes are so toxic).
Please note: Grenada is said to be a beautiful colonial gem in the area. It is not far away and we wished we had made it work to visit for at least a few days.
For our personal trip experiences, please feel free to read the post!