2015 Nicaragua Post 7 – February 18 – 25 , Leon, Las Penitas, Leon Viejo
Deni Posting – We didn’t find the time to do a posting about the rest of our time in Leon or our final days at the beach. We’re home now. I’ll summarize a bit and then give you some overall thoughts about Nicaragua.
We spent a total of five days in Leon. It was definitely our favorite place in Nicaragua, although it was very hot. One of the most amazing things we saw in Leon took place just down the block from our hostel. We were heading out to explore, and we noticed that the cross street was blocked off and there was a huge line of folks heading into a building. We learned that on the 20th of each month throughout the country, pensioners have to line up to receive their pensions. Because so few people in Nicaragua have bank accounts, there is no such thing as automatic deposit. And I guess mailing checks could be very problematic. So, all these old people have to line up and wait in the hot, hot sun. The line moved very slowly. As people were processed, more people kept coming to join the line. The reception guy at the hostel told us that folks start lining up the night before – sort of like people in the U.S. line up to get tickets to a concert. The processing goes on for several days. It’s just a terrible thing for elderly people to have to go through. I hope Nicaragua can figure out some way to show more respect to their seniors.
We spent our last four days in Las Penitas on the Pacific coast. It’s only about 20 minutes away from Leon, so the place really rocks on the weekend. We stayed in a nice hotel (for Las Penitas). Our room had an ocean view and an ocean breeze at night, which we very much appreciated. We didn’t do much there. The major attraction is surfing – not something we wanted to try!!! One day we hired a guide with a boat to take us into the mangrove nature reserve. That was fun. I had a run-in with the Pacific. I was being very careful to walk well above the water line as we were going out to a point to see the sunset. A sneaker wave came in; grabbed me; shook me around; tore the sandals I was carrying out of my hands; and ripped my hat, sunglasses, and glasses off. The sandals were OK, but my glasses were long gone. Thank goodness I wasn’t carrying our camera or a cell phone and that I wasn’t hurt. But I’m very annoyed with the ocean for stealing my glasses.
On our way back to Managua to get our flight home, we stopped off at Leon Viejo, the original location of Leon. The original city was hit my numerous earthquakes; in 1610 the inhabitants decided to relocate and moved to the city’s current location. Subsequently the city was buried in ash from the nearby volcano, Momotombo. In the 1960s archeologists started to excavate. They no sooner got a lot of the place uncovered than the country was rocked by hurricanes that covered a lot of it up again. So, it was back to digging. There’s a museum there that does a good job of telling the city’s story. It’s no Machu Picchu or Tikal, but it’s interesting and there was a beautiful view of Momotombo.
We spent our last night in Nicaragua at a Best Western Hotel with two pools, a bar, and a restaurant. The hotel is directly across from the airport, which made it very nice and very convenient. It was clean! It had air conditioning! The food was good! It was a nice place to end the trip. (Although the journey to the hotel through Managua at rush hour with a failing GPS was not so great – oh well, we got there.)
Here are our final thoughts about Nicaragua.
- Nicaragua has been described as just like Costa Rica only less expensive. We know it’s less expensive – that’s why we went there. But, based on our experience and the experience of other travelers we’ve talked to, it ain’t no Costa Rica. Nicaragua still hasn’t quite decided whether it really wants to be in the tourist business. The lack of good roads into the nature reserves; the poor service in some restaurants; the unfriendliness of many Nica; the poor or non-existent signage; and the water, air, land, and noise pollution all need to be dealt with before we would recommend it without reservation to other travelers – especially older folks.
- There are things to do – but not a lot of active things if you’re over 40. Surfing, both ocean and volcanoes (!!), is a big attraction for the backpacker set. And there are many inexpensive surfing schools on both coasts. Beyond that – not so much. We did enjoy Somoto Canyon; we recommend contacting Reinel through Hotel Rosario in Somoto. He was a great guide. But the canyon and the mangroves out of Las Penitas were the only two reserves that we could easily access. We noticed many young folks sitting around hostels trying to figure out how to get into the reserves without a 4-wheel drive or spending money to go with a tour group. We love to hike and were not able to find many hiking opportunities, other than the trails in Selva Negro, a private reserve.
- The whole issue of the Chinese canal should be taken into consideration if you plan on going to Nicaragua. The farmers and ranchers in the area the canal is going to go through have staged several protests. When we left, they had embargoed their products and were not supplying the cities with meat and produce. The government has sent newly trained soldiers (kids with guns) into the area – essentially to protect the Chinese and their investments from the Nica. We see no way this can end well unless the whole scheme is shelved.
- A word about expenses. Yes, the list price of things is low. But you have to add 15 percent tax to everything – food, services, etc. A tip of 10 percent in restaurants is the expectation. So, a lobster dinner that is $12 on the menu is really $15 – still a deal, but that needs to be taken into consideration.
- If you are a volcano nut, Nicaragua is the place for you. We were blown away (no pun intended) by the volcanoes. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, so we know volcanoes. But ours are covered in snow and are sleeping (except for Mt. St. Helens, of course). The Nicaraguan volcanoes are younger than ours and are very active. Seeing smoke pouring out of some of them is super cool.
- If you want to head south and have a choice between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, go to Costa Rica if you want to see animals and if expense isn’t a big issue. If you want to see volcanoes and not spend a lot of money, go to Nicaragua. If you want to go someplace spectacular, friendly, and easy to travel in, go to Colombia, which continues to be our favorite place in Central and South America.
- Our recommendations for places to stay: Managua – Backpackers Hostel, Masaya – stay at San Simian at Laguna de Apoyo and make Masaya a day trip to see the market (which is just OK) and the volcano, Granada – Hostel El Momento, Rio San Juan – Sabalos Lodge, Matagalpa – La Buena Onda, Somoto – Hotel Rosario, Leon – Lazybones Hostel, Las Penitas – Hotel Suyapa, Managua Airport – Best Western.
- Best food – The Deni Cooperrider Best Food in Nicaragua Award goes to the fish tacos (fish steamed in cabbage leaves) at Casa de Huesped Chinandegano in El Castillo. In Matagalpa ask Stein at La Buena Onda for directions to the best ice cream in Nicargaua. Also in Matagalpa there is great seafood at El Pescamar ( with a no smoking room!!!) and good Italian at La Vita e Bella. In Leon, El Sesteo on the central square has good food although it’s a bit expensive. Also in Leon we really liked Yavoy for its huge salads.
- How to make the Nicaraguan national cocktail, the Macua: 2 parts white rum (usually Flor de Cana), 2 parts guava juice, 1 part lemon, sugar to taste. Serve on the rocks. A very good thing.
- A final word. Lonely Planet has proven to be a reliable guide to many of the places we’ve gone. The Nicaragua book was a disappointment. Directions were not always accurate, and information was often incomplete or just wrong. Be aware.