Anyone who knows me knows that I do a lot of research before a trip. It’s not that I like to have every moment scheduled or anticipate every experience – on the contrary, the great thing about travel is to explore the unknown – but I like to know I’m armed with the right tools and knowledge to make the most of my limited time in a new destination or culture. No matter how much research one does, it is impossible to be prepared for everything and there are always a few things that you learn along the way (a good thing or travel would be much less interesting)!
We spent last week in Nicaragua. It is a beautiful country with an emerging tourism market that is ideal for eco-tourists, adventure travelers, and backpackers. Relevant and current travel information was not as abundantly available for Nicaragua as for more developed and well-travelled parts of the world and I depended heavily on bloggers and travel forums in my research. I’d like to pay it forward by sharing the top things I was glad to know, or wished I had known, before arriving.
I wish I had known more Spanish. For years, D and I have commented that we should learn Spanish – next to English it is the most widely-spread language in the world, so useful for any avid traveller. Well, we have never gotten around to it and were rueful as there is very little English in Nicaragua. Most people working in tourism speak English to some degree –the hotel staff, tour operators, and guides we encountered spoke fluently – but in shops, on the street, in most restaurants, and with our transfer drivers, we were frequently challenged to communicate even the bare essentials. So brush up on your Spanish or bring your translator app or English-Spanish dictionary!
Have some Cordobas. I had the impression that USD was fairly widely accepted. And it is, so far as we never ran into an instance where the cash was turned down. But there were many times we got a less-than-thrilled look from merchants, and you will get change back in Cordobas which generally carries an unfavourable exchange rate. Plus, tips will drain your small US bills pretty fast leaving you with large ones and the challenge of getting change. How much you will need depends on where you are staying and what you are planning to do. Meals will cost you anywhere from $4 at the food stalls to $15 for a hearty dinner at a restaurant. Cervezas are a couple of bucks a piece and most tours and activities come in around the $50 mark.
Speaking of food… Have Quesillos and Vigorón in Granada. I love street foods – at home and especially away. But when I don’t speak the language it can be intimidating to know what I’m looking for and what I’m supposed to order. Vigorón is a pork and yucca meal, served in a yucca leaf. There are vendors all around Central Park – look for those with the giant yucca leaves and pork rinds on the cart. It is pronounced with a B: bee-zher-on. There are usually one or two Quesillo stands set up in the afternoons outside Iglesia de la Merced. It is a yummy snack of a small tortilla with soft cheese, pickled onion, and sweet cream. You can add a little piquante to your taste. It is rolled up and put in a small plastic bag. To enjoy it like the locals do, tie up the top of the bag and tear a small hole in the bottom with your teeth so you can suck the tortilla, cheese, onion, juices, and cream out a little bite at a time.
Hiking on Ometepe is no simple nature walk. Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanos (Concepción and Maderas), with an isthmus between them, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua (known as Lake Cocibolca to the locals). I cannot tell you much about the hike on Concepción, since we didn’t do it. I can tell you that we chose Maderas because it is dormant so the landscape is lush rain and cloud forest, versus Concepción which is active and mostly barren so there is high wind, loose terrain and exposure to the sun. Maderas is a slightly shorter hike at 5.5Km to the summit with an elevation gain of about 1300m from the trailhead, versus Concepción being 1600m elevation and taking an average of 10-11 hours roundtrip. I knew from my research that we should expect to get muddy (and we did!) and that the trail was steep and rocky (and it was!) but difficulty levels are relative and often hard to gauge through online research. To give you some perspective on that: D and I are pretty active and in good physical condition. We aren’t terribly strong hikers but we go on several decent day hikes every year (usually 5-8 Km, on fairly groomed trails, with elevation gains around 800m). And this was a challenging hike for us. Granted, we did it in pretty good time (on average it takes 4 hours each way and we did it in 6 round trip), but the terrain, more than anything else, poses the challenge. The trail is well maintained at the bottom, as you hike through the plantations of Finca Magdelena, but it gets progressively rockier and muddier. For the last half you are navigating rocks and roots, or hefting yourself up large boulders, on every step. The route is slick with a clay-mud so even shoes with good grip slip every which way. Coming down is even more treacherous and the enormous bruises on my bottom are a testament to this. Our feet, ankles, and knees were pretty sore at the end from being jarred against rocks as our downward steps found footholds in the mud. But don’t let my description discourage you, either. It is a beautiful hike up to a lagoon in the crater and there is a lookout around the half-way mark with a fantastic view of Concepción. We are glad we did it.
So do the hike. It is well worth the effort and sore muscles and joints. But take your time and know your limits. Know that you might not make it all the way to the top – just enjoy the hike until you can’t anymore and then come back down. Your guide will help you gauge your progress and how far you should or want to go. Or choose to do the San Ramon waterfall, on the other side of Maderas, instead. It is a shorter/easier hike that usually takes about 3 hours round trip.
How to prepare for hiking volcanos: You will need a sturdy pair of running shoes with good grip but hiking boots are not required. Actually, on Maderas I was happy not to have hikers as they are much heavier than my runners and I appreciated being able to twist and articulate my ankles to work around the rocks and roots. Our tour company recommended light pants and a windbreaker and I scoffed, coming from Calgary in the winter, but I was damp with sweat when we reached the top of Maderas and the breeze chilled me a bit. On Mombacho it was pretty windy – I was cold in shorts and a tank top. A hiking stick is helpful (though not mandatory). Water is somewhat personal and you can guess your consumption better than anyone. For Maderas, the guides recommend 3L per person – bring a big enough backpack or hydra pack as you won’t want to be carrying bottles (you’ll need your hands free). It is illegal do most hikes without a guide and it is inexpensive so best not to risk it. A guide is not required for San Ramon waterfall or the easy hike on Mombacho.
Navigating the Peñas Blancas border is not straight forward. There are several steps on each side of the border and they are not well-marked or linear so I recommend booking a transfer (the driver/guide will meet you at the gate and direct you through the steps) or take the bus (the driver collects your passport and money and takes care of the documentation while you wait on the bus). It will cost you US$8 to exit Costa Rica. Someone with an official-looking lanyard will take your passport and money and come back a few minutes later with your receipt. Yes – the receipt says $7, and no – I don’t know what the extra dollar is for. But I wouldn’t sweat it, even if it went in the lady’s pocket…she did the work and she probably needs the $1 more than you do! Next you’ll go into a little building where they will swipe and stamp your passport. Leave your luggage outside. You will then cross a space of about 200m with a gate on each side…no man’s land. It is hot and dusty and if you don’t want to deal with your bags you can pay for a little bike cart to drive you. On the Nicaraguan side you’ll find yourself at a little hut where they record your name, hotel and a few other personal details on a hand-written tracking form, and take your temperature. Then you need to fill out a declaration card before you go to get your passport stamped. There are guys hanging around who will fill out the card for you, for a tip (about a buck). When you enter the passport control area you’ll be called over to a little booth where you pay US$1 per person for what I can only assume is a tourist tax. After getting your passport swiped and stamped, and paying US$12 entry fee you are good to go. Good luck finding the little exit door without some guidance, and away you go. The return trip is about as straight forward (!) but a little cheaper with only a US$4 exit fee on the Nicaraguan side. And on the Costa Rica side you will need to have your return airline ticket or some proof that you will be leaving Costa Rica again within the timeframe of the 90-day tourist visa.
I should have carried a pen and paper with me. We stumbled a few times on this seemingly obvious thing. You’ll need a pen at the border and it makes communicating prices and directions easier when there is a language barrier.