Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes! Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and is slightly bigger in area than New York State and has a population of more than 5,800,000 people. Although Nicaragua’s capital is Managua, the city of Granada is probably the most popular amongst tourists, and in fact is the oldest city on continental Latin America.
The main language is Spanish, but native tribes on the eastern coast speak their own languages such as Miskito, Sumo and Rama, as well as English Creole.
Pic found on Wikipedia
We had read about day trips to Nicaragua in other blog posts and we thought that sounded interesting and we wanted to do so while visiting Costa Rica. We did some research and found several companies offering tours, but some required a minimum amount of people and some companies didn’t run daily. After strolling the internet we found a promising day trip on Go! Tours Costa Rica, which is organized by Plus Papagayo.
This tour departs from Guanacaste area and it requires a minimum of 2 participants. The company will pick you up at the hotel, all border taxes are included and so is breakfast and lunch. The price of the tour starting at 140$, depending on where your hotel is located.
At 4.30 am we were picked up at our hotel in Playa Grande and we were driven to a meeting point where we had to wait for a minibus we were joining. Then we drove for an hour before we change vehicle once again, now to a small bus. We drove for another hour and arrived La Cruz, situated approx. 20 minutes away from the border. It was here at a restaurant with a lovely view of Bahia Salinas we had this mornings breakfast.
When arriving the border our guide Martinez collected the passports and we had to get out of the bus while waiting. Border crossings are really easy when you’re on a tour since the guide does almost everything for you. You have to fill out a form to depart Costa Rica with passport number, nationality, occupation etc. and when you get your passport back just check that you have the right stamp(s) in order.
It was a checkpoint before we got to the immigration for entering Nicaragua. After the formalities had been done (just stand in line and get your stamp) there were a couple of checkpoints on the Nicaraguan side. In total the border crossing took about 1,5-2 hours.
You can do some shopping or visit the Tax Free while you’re waiting on the Costa Rican side, and do not forget to bring proof of a return ticket out of Central America!
Activities on the tour
First we had a quick stop at Lake Nicaragua for photo opportunities of Ometepe Island, and next stop was to have a look at the impressive old volcanic crater lagoon at Catarina, where it also was some time to check out the markets. We then headed towards Masaya Volcano National Park, and drove all the way to the top of the volcano to overlook the Santiago Crater.
This was really the highlight of the tour as we could see lava flowing in the crater. How awesome isn’t that? It’s not allowed to stay too long at the top, but our guide manages to stretch the time a bit. The guard blew his whistle when it was time to head back to the bus.
This is one of few places in the world where you could actually drive to the edge and look down into the crater of a volcano with lava flowing.
Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua
Volcanic crater lagoon at Catarina
After this it was time for a delicious lunch at Che Gris in Masaya before we strolled the large market.
We then drove to Granada where we were divided into groups of 3-4 before we were ready for a guided horse carriage tour with optional stops along the way. We stopped by the Chocolate museum/factory where we got to taste different kind of beverage with chocolate flavor, to mention some: Chocolate tea, chocolate coffee, chocolate rum, chocolate wine… The guide was full of energy, and for every drink we tried we had to salud the “right” way. And it goes like this: “¡Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’ dentro! “, and with the right arm movements: Rise the glass up in the air when shouting ‘arriba’, then down towards the floor on ‘abajo’, straight in front of you on ‘al centro’ and then back towards you ready to drink while screaming ‘pa’dentro’! It was so much fun, and mixed with alcohol you know how that goes, haha!
Borrowed from http://myspanishnotes.blogspot.se
After this we had the opportunity to buy chocolate bars or chocolate drinks, but we went out to continue the sightseeing through the city. Our young Nicaraguan guide told us all he knew about the places we saw along the way, and we also got to witness a funeral procession down the street. It’s always interesting to learn about the different cultures and this was a unique opportunity. We did of course show some respect, so no pictures were taken.
The buildings in Granada is so colorful – just gotta love it!
Kids make flowers out of palm leafs and handle them to you saying it’s a gift, but this is just a scam. And even you say you don’t want it and at least not want to pay for it they still claim that it is a gift. So when you walk away they will follow you and beg for money, and if they don’t get anything they will rip the flower right out of your hand. So when they handle it to you just put it on the ground and walk away (if you don’t want to buy one though). They are very insistent!
After approx. an hour in the carriage through the city we were ready to drive to the next and last stop of this day trip before returning back to Costa Rica.
A boat tour on Lake Nicaragua was the last activity on our program, a 40 minute long tour on the huge lake, watching houses on private island owned by famous people. We also had a stop by an island once bought by a veterinary where some rescued monkeys now lives.
We over watched the sunset before we headed back to the dock and started the long way back to our hotel.
Lake Nicaragua, also called Lake Cocibolca, is a freshwater lake, and with its surface of 8,264 km² it is the largest lake in Central America. The Spanish conquerors named it La Mar Dulce (the Sweet Sea).
The lake has a history of Caribbean pirates who assaulted Granada on three occasions. Before construction of the Panama Canal, a stagecoach line owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company connected the lake with the Pacific across the low hills of the narrow Isthmus of Rivas. Plans were made to take advantage of this route to build an interoceanic canal, the Nicaragua Canal, but the Panama Canal was built instead.
For hundreds if not thousands of years the lake has provided people living in the area an important source for fish. But the lake’s most famous inhabitant, however, is the shark; Carcharhinus leucas, generally known as the Caribbean bull shark. The shark’s high tolerance of fresh water enabled the predator to adapt to the water of the San Juan River and allowed the shark to travel up the river and reach Lake Nicaragua.
Years ago the shark became a problem with its aggressive behavior and local fishermen and inhabitants strongly feared this new resident. During the Somoza dynasty thousands of sharks were caught and killed each year, and the shark population sharply declined. The animal has become more of a legendary figure that is often mentioned in reference to the lake.
Other interesting but endangered fish include the big sawfish, the fine-toothed sawfish and the Gaspar, another sawfish-like species.
Nicaragua has recently banned freshwater fishing of the shark and the sawfish in response to the declining populations of these animals.
Returning back to Costa Rica
The border crossing on the return trip didn’t take long at all, maybe 30-40 minutes in total. When leaving Nicaragua we had to show proof of our return flight, get the departure stamp and then over to the immigration on the Costa Rican side. Once again our guide collected all the passports and organized the border formalities (we just had to give him the completed arrival form). When Martinez gave us the passports back we were also given hand carved painted Maracas as a gift, with our name engraved.
From Lake Nicaragua it took in total about 4 hours, and we weren’t back at our hotel before 23:30. In fact we were out for 19 hours, so it was a long day!
We think this tour is a very great opportunity to get a taste of Nicaragua if you have a limited time to explore Nicaragua. It’s a long day, but totally worth it! When you pay for the tour you have everything necessary included, and you just have to think about personal expenses. Some snacks are a good idea to bring or buy. They made a stop at McDonalds on the way back for people to buy something to eat, but not sure if this is a usual thing they do. The lunch was outstanding (we both had the filet mignon), but we thought the breakfast was too simple with scramble eggs, sausages and tortilla. It tasted all right, it wasn’t that, but too basic.
We were surprised that we got to see magma flowing in the volcano though. We knew we were visiting the Masaya volcano park, but hadn’t dreamt of seeing that. So that was a pleasant surprise for us, and we could tick that of the bucket list.
Our guide Martinez and the driver (didn’t get his name, but Martinez called him Jr.) were both excellent. And the gift was the icing on the cake, really lovely, and will forever remind us of the awesome day trip we had to Nicaragua.