"The Land of Lakes and Volcanos"…and San Juan del Sur - Nicaragua

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Do's: 

  • Check out the churches in the colonial city of Leon.
  • Sunday Funday, San Juan del Sur.
  • Go off the grid to the volcanic island of Isla de Ometepe
  • Surf the desolate beach of Playa Gigante.
  • Stay in a tree house for a night, just outside of Granada
  • Check out the reef break at Playa Popoyo.

 

Don't:

  • Bring valuables out with you at night. 
  • Go to Managua. 

The drive from El Tunco to Leon was an interesting one, thanks to the sketchy police check points every 500 meters in Honduras. After 8 hours, we finally arrived in Leon. It was nighttime when we arrived, so we went straight to Bigfoot Hostel where we stayed for two nights. Bigfoot offers a volcano boarding tour, where you can skid down the side of a volcano. I decided to hang back and explore the town a bit. However, once you've explored and seen some churches, you'll want to move on from Leon as there's not much to do. You'll notice that the town mainly consists of pharmacies and churches. The churches are cool to see if you're there though. Oh and if you're staying at Bigfoot, you'll most likely be peer pressured into the lava shot challenge. You've been warned. 

The next day, we made a pit stop at the beach just outside of Leon. If you're on a time constraint, I would recommend heading southern Nicaragua to see better beaches. 

Most of us had been hearing about a crazy pool crawl called Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur. So we didn't waste any time getting to SJDS the first Sunday we were in Nica. Little did I know this would be my first of 4. Every backpacker who is in SJDS on a Sunday will be at the Sunday Funday party, and apparently it's become so popular there's even a maximum set for the amount of people that are allowed to buy tickets. I haven't experienced that but I've heard others have. Tickets are $30 and if you're staying at Pachamama Hostel or the Naked Tiger Hostel, you'll get a half off discount. You get a shirt with your ticket and a lot of people either wear them or dress up in a ridiculous costume. You'll be drinking in different pools throughout SJDS all day with your friends. For my first weekend, I stayed at Casa de Olas and met up with my Scottish gal friend who I met in Guatemala along with a few other friends from England. Owned by two Aussies Carla and Fred, Casa de Olas is next door to the Naked Tiger hostel. Both are out of town and perched on a hill top overlooking the ocean. You'll definitely want to spend a few nights/your whole stay here. Sometimes it's a hassle coordinating shuttles down to the town, but worse comes to worse you get a taxi and it's worth the view. 

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More into convenience? Stay at Pachamama hostel in town. This is where I stayed the second and third time I was in SJDS. Plus Sunday Funday usually ends at Pachamama so it's way more convenient. It books up really quickly and no where in San Juan takes hostel bookings in advance, so make sure you get there in good time/before Friday to enjoy your Sunday! 

San Juan del Sur is a great place to base yourself if you want to explore a bit of Nica. 

DAY TRIPS

Take advantage of one of the beach shuttles from town and go to Playa Maderas or Playa Hermosa. Shuttles are anywhere from $5-10 roundtrip. If you want to surf, rent a board before you go. Or just go an relax and play some beach volleyball. There's a restaurant/bar at Playa Maderas, but I would recommend bringing some of your own water or snacks, especially if you're there for the day since there is nothing else around. 

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Take a hike up to the Christ of the Mercy statue while you're in town. My recommendation is to go an hour before sunset so it is not too hot and you will get a great view. It's about a 2km paved hike starting in town, but be prepared to walk up some steep hills. There's an entrance fee of about $2 to get in so bring cash as well. The view at the top is definitely worth the hike. 

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MORE THAN A DAY TRIPS

In between Sunday Funday's I hopped in the van (now named Walter) and went on some excursions since you won't want to be in SJDS during the week when it's dead. 

Our first adventure brought us to Isla de Ometempe. It's a little over a half an hour to get there from SJDS and most people just take a taxi. Luckily we had good ol' Walter and we drove to the ferry station and took the automobile ferry across with Walt. 

Visit THIS WEBSITE for ferry times. 

Most backpackers tend to stay at Yogi's Hostel, but we stumbled upon a random place called Hostal Espirales, where the woman who owned it made all of us feel at home. The power tends to go in and out all over the island especially if it rains, but it adds to the natural charm the island provides. At night, fireflies twinkle everywhere in the grass, really making you feel like you're in a magical place. 

On one of the days here, the boys decided to take an 8 hour hike up to one of the volcanoes on the island, while my Dutch friend and I decided to rent some bikes and cruise around the island. We found a natural pool called Ojo de Agua, where the water flows from volcano Maderas. It's $3 for entrance and really nice way to cool down. It's not ideal to bike around the entire island because the road is not paved the entire way, but you will manage to see a good part of the island if you decide to rent a bike. A daily bike rental is about $10. Or you can rent a four wheeler and go over the rough patches more easily. We made it a decent distance, stopped for lunch at one of the vegan cafes, and on our way back checked out a permaculture farm called El Zopilote where they host yoga retreats. If you're into yoga, definitely go for a class one morning. After two days on the island we went back to the coast. 

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After our second weekend in SJDS, we went to Granada to celebrate American Thanksgiving. Football and an all you can eat buffet had us Americans feeling like we were back in the states (kind of).

We weren't keen to spend too much time in Granada, so we went to a Tree House hostel just outside of the city called the Bearded Monkey. Make sure you go with a small group because you will most likely be the only guests there, but it makes for a great time. You're up in a tree and there are monkeys all around you. Sit back, relax and curl up in a hammock with a book, or do what we did and have a weird hat party and dance on tables. You'll need to be a bit tired to fall asleep to the growling of howler monkeys. 

The last trip was spent up and down the coast. Our first stop was in Playa Popoyo. Here the beach is pretty desolate and there's a crazy reef break I was not ready for. I ended up breaking a bone in my foot that took me out of the surfing game for the next few months. This also made walking a bit more difficult but I managed. However, this is an ideal place for surfers, so if you're looking for a good break go to Popoyo. We stayed at a cheap, hole in the wall place, but if you have good company you'll have a good time.  

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Our second stop at Playa Gigante was by far my favourite beach in Nica. Secluded and devoted to surfing and yoga, this place had it all for me. It's the perfect place to get lost and be non existent for a while. The coastline is covered in lush green jungle, and the sunsets are one of a kind. The waves are perfect for beginners, and you have a good chance of having the entire beach to yourself at times. 

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After a week on the coast, the crew was getting ready to head back to San Juan for yet another Sunday Funday. I was San Juan'd out and decided to get back on the solo road to head down to Panama and meet up with my German friends from the Wolf Pack. So I said a tearful goodbye to the luxurious Walter and crew, and made my way to Bocas del Toro.