Ometepe, the road to Granada, and neglecting Nicaragua

Primo!
Source: Google Images

I have been blitzing through Nicaragua, three destinations in one week. It really feels like I have not given it the attention it deserves. Almost everyone I have met along this trip who is traveling south-to-north has fallen in love with Nicaragua. I have yet to feel the love. It is cheap, and that’s great, but show me something special. The rainy season and time pressures calling me elsewhere have not helped focus my attention.

Well, one super awesome thing is that Flor de Caña rum–the typical alcohol in this part of Central America–is served in the seven-year variety standard at all bars, instead of four-year like in Guatemala.

Leon went by fast, and was relatively quiet time for me detoxing from Utila. I had a good time, but not great and did not connect with the city. Ometepe, an island of two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua, also did not enchant me. I spent two nights there, met some cool people, ate in a really special cafe called Cafe Campestre that I would swoon over not only here but also back in SF, but did a poor job of exploring. I took remarkably few pictures. I was just plain ready to move on.

The approach to Ometepe, isle of the two volcanoes.

Hummus lunch at Cafe Campestre, delish.

My travel buddy Nick and I left Ometepe one night early in favor of Granada. We took the ferry across the lake then ended up hiring a taxi to drive us all the way to the city. En route, we stopped at a gas station and I found the most delicious cups of fish soup being sold out of the back of a car on the street for forty cents. Who’d have thought! Continuing on, we intended on staying at a treehouse hostel just outside the city, but logistics and our changing desires made us pick our bags back up and move to Granada proper, where I will spend my last four nights in Nicaragua. Already my initial impression of Granada is fantastic. I cannot wait to spend some real time here and delve into this city. I know for a fact it will be my favorite place in Nicaragua by far.

Sneak peak of Granada from the hostel roof top…

I am being called elsewhere. I cannot wait to be back in Belize and Mexico. So much adventure, glorious diving, and fantastic people are waiting for me there. Just a few more days now… I’m sorry Nicaragua, you got the short end of the stick this trip. But I still plan to pump a good deal of money into your economy over the next four days on clothing, street food, and rum. It’s going to be a good time.

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My introduction to Nicaragua: León

It’s been a while since I explored a new place, let alone a new country. My first stop in Nicaragua was León. I looked forward to the return to a city, new street food other than baleadas, and rock bottom prices. I realized upon crossing the border that this is the last new country I intend to visit on my trip.

León is a small-feeling city, with surprisingly chill energy. I stayed at Bigfoot Hostel in the center of town, and most of hostel life revolved around novel day trips like cock fighting and volcano boarding followed by partying at night. While fun, it feels cliche and a little silly, very gringo path again. I found it somewhat difficult to connect with the city. I spent a few hours a day wandering the city core but never felt like I got the spirit. One thing I have been disappointed in is my lack of learning about Latin American history. I had hoped to do some of that here in León but failed miserably due to museum closures and late returns from day trips.

The city has elements of pretty, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful so far. I am actually a little surprised that I am not more enchanted. My experience in León has felt fragmented… I think I am going through a bit of Utila detox and having a little trouble bonding with new things and adjusting expectations.

Parque Central. Lions are (unsurprisingly, I suppose) EVERYWHERE in this city!

Iglesia de San Francisco, dusted by volcanic ash.
Another view on a clearer day. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
The cathedral. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

My first night I went out in search of street food for dinner. I was surprised by how difficult it was to track down anything that was not a hamburger, hot dog, or pizza. Frustration! During the day I found chicken plates (C$90/$3.75USD) served up outside the main market and flavored shave ice (C$12/$0.50USD) off Parque Central easily.

Now that’s what I’m talking about…

 

I wondered what she had in her cart… turns out it was a block of ice, waiting to be shaved.

 

Excited to dig in!
Shave ice with dulce de leche sauce. Mmm….

Nicaragua is known to be quite safe, and I do feel secure here. However, it is also just behind Belize in the frequency of cat calls and attention noises (whistles, clicking, etc) I receive walking down the street. It is noticeable and not my favorite. It doesn’t make me feel unsafe, but it is a bother.

Physical goods are indeed quite cheap! I’ve already stocked up on a few replacement items and some new beachy dresses for Mexico.

Something I did not anticipate: the beginning of the rainy season. This put a damper on overnight volcano trekking plans, which was a huge shame. Oh well, there are other volcanoes to climb, and I’m sure we’ll find one to tackle!

A sobering topic: safety concerns

This is an issue I am getting about asked often by my friends and family. Yes, I am of course wary about safety while traveling in Central America, particularly as a solo woman. However, I am also conscientious, take warnings seriously, and will be proactive about being safe. I’ve spoken with women who have recently traveled alone in Central America and also read travel blogs, online forums, government travel warnings, and media assessments to get as much insight and advice on the subject as I can. The consensus seems to be that yes there are things to be concerned about, but in most areas common sense practices go a long way towards reducing risk.

Some actions I’m taking include:

  • Connecting with other travelers as either short term or, if I’m lucky, longer term travel partners, and traveling in groups as much as possible. I’m purposefully selecting hostels that look like good place to meet such people. I have confidence in my ability to make friends on the road and think I have a lot to offer as a travel companion; I am hopeful I will find people to link up with.
  • Starting the trip in safer areas; the Yucatan and Belize have no serious safety warnings beyond basic issues a tourist could encounter anywhere. So I will gain my travel legs in the most secure areas in the region and be acclimated by the time I move to sketchier places.
  • Flexing my itinerary to stay out of particularly dangerous areas, in a micro and macro sense. I am keeping up on current situations and will be talking with other travelers and locals on the ground about specific safety warnings. When I arrive in a new city, I’ll ask my hostel staff to circle on a map places I shouldn’t go. I have heard strong enough warnings to keep me out of a few areas altogether–for instance, the northwestern Guatemala/Mexican border, certain capital cities, or throughout Honduras–and will be cautious about choosing where to go or where to skip.
  • Heeding warnings about how and when to travel. Depending on the place, choosing my method of transport based on safety (this varies greatly by region and is something I will have to stay on top of, aka sometimes busses are ok, sometimes not; the most legit type of taxi seems to differ from place to place). I plan to only travel long-haul early in the day so as to not arrive anywhere at night. Night travel is something I will try to minimize in general, and am picking hostels with self-contained bars, hangout areas, and kitchens on site so that it will be possible to have a social night life close to home.
  • Adjusting my appearance to look like a less appealing target. I plan to dress modestly, not display overt signs of wealth (jewelry/electronics/flashy clothing), and not carry valuables. Will likely acquire some clothing there to better blend in. Yes I know, I’m tall and super white, but every little bit helps, right?
  • Registering my trip and estimated itinerary with the State Department. I’ve enrolled in STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan) and am receiving current travel/security updates.
  • Being medically prepared too: I’ve got all my vaccinations, malaria pills, insurance, and emergency medication.
  • Maintaining common sense practices about awareness, staying out of dangerous situations, etc, just as I would at home.
  • Continuing to listen, watch, feel, and adapt.

I know safety is serious, and really don’t want anything bad to happen to me. I am taking precautions but I also don’t want fear to dominate my experience. I mean, in San Francisco there are areas I don’t go to at night or alone, but I still live here and enjoy it. I’m not naive, but am optimistic that I can balance this all in a responsible way and still have fun.