My next adventure included traveling north of Costa Rica to the country of Nicaragua.
The tour bus
I decided to go against my usual style and travel via a tourismo (tourist) bus. Many gringos but a good price. My tour guide, Harold, is a good friend of my father and was superb the entire time. He made the experience very fun for everyone.
The only trouble with the experience is that they attempt to compress weeks of travel into 1 day. You spend about 80% of the time crammed in a bus (albeit air conditioned), traversing a great amount of distance. On arrival, each location only afforded you around 15-20 minutes for exploration, photos, and shopping. In my humble opinion, this is just simply not enough time to truly enjoy the nicos (local nickname for Nicaragua people) and their rich culture. It is worthwhile if you are in a hurry but not my personal preference.
A large advantage fo going across the border via a structured tourist model is the guides. They make immigration a breeze. You must fill out an immigration form twice. Your first stop is on the Costa Rica side of the border. There you must pay an exit tax (anytime you leave Costa Rica). This costs a staggering $7 USD. Passport in hand, they process your exit. Simple. Done. The second stop is on the Nicaragua side of the border. There you must get a tourist visa. This was a touch nerve-wracking as the guide gathers everyone’s passport (in bulk) and disappears for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, everyone must exit the bus and hit the bathrooms and/or duty-free shops. I never like being in a foreign country without my passport. Regardless, I rapidly shook it off and purchased four bottles of Kettle One (you’re welcome dad) to stock up. American alcohol in Costa Rica is VERY expensive. Soon afterwards an immigration officer arrived at the bus, passports in tow, and began calling names. Your name is called, he/she checks the photo, and lets you back on the bus. I am on the bus, have my passport back, and tons of vodka. Life is good again. We hit the road.
Rivas, a lake, and a wind farm
The first Nicaragua town you go through, once past immigration, is Rivas. Not much to see there. We continue on the road for an hour. The roads are now much smoother than Costa Rica. Lake Nicaragua is on your right and covers over 8,000 square kilometers. It is the 10th largest fresh water lake in the world, and by far the largest in Central America. It is the central focus of our tour.
Located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, one of the best wind resources in the Americas, we passed by the Amayo Wind Project. There you see 19 massive turbine generators that support a 34 mile-wide wind farm, the first in the country and one of the largest in Central America. The project delivers clean electricity to Nicaragua’s national grid, which covers more than 90% of Nicaragua’s populated territory. Pretty cool.
Mirador de Catarina
Our first stop is at Mirador de Caterina, near the town of Masaya. There you see the Apoyo Lagoon from multiple cement benches lined up along the hillside. Apoyo Lagoon is the biggest of Nicaragua’s lagoons. Its name, Lake “Alt-poyec” which means “Healthy Water”. Simply gorgeous. Mirador de Caterina also provides many small shops and little red taxis that will take you anywhere for a very small price. I wish I had more time to explore. Back on the bus.
Next stop, is the Volcan Masaya, Nicaragua’s first and largest national park. It is located just outside the town of Masaya. The park is home to an active volcano that last erupted in 1772. It was very complex and composed of a nested set of calderas and craters, the largest of which is Las Sierras shield volcano and caldera. After a quick check point at the park entrance, you drive for about 10 minutes to the top of the volcano. Our goal is Las Sierras. Along the way you see remnants of the last eruption, including a significant amount of poorly vegetated ʻaʻā lava. We arrived at Las Sierras, which looks like a gigantic crater that has a large cloud sitting inside. You cannot see the bottom of it. We are advised that you will not be permitted outside the bus for longer than 10 minutes. Volcan Masaya continually emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas. Longer than 10 minutes and you will begin feeling the effects. Shorter if you have pre-existing breathing problems. I quickly take some pictures, one of which includes a make-shift cross overlooking the volcano. Worth it.
Isleta de Granada
We then travelled to the other side of Lake Nicaragua to visit Isleta de Granada, near the city of Granada. Isleta de Granda is located in Lake Nicaragua and includes a group of 365 islands. The islands were created from volcanic activity. Most were piles of granite boulders crowned by a few trees.
Upon arrival, we pull into to a small lake port. They split the group and we all climbed aboard small motorboats that took us between the islands. On the boat you witness beautiful landscapes. There were also men throwing fishing nets off rocks, women doing laundry, and children paddling between islands in canoes. Some islands hosted private homes, while others included hotels, a church, a school, and a restaurant. One of the highlights is a small spider monkey colony living on a little island that we were able to float up to. When the boat came near the shore, the monkeys became very excited and approached us. The guides let the children (and an obnoxious woman) feed the monkeys. The monkeys would simply swoop down and snatch crackers out of their hands. Very cool. We turned around and headed back to the bus.
Our last stop was within the town of Grenada, a beautiful old Spanish city famed for its colonial architecture. There we had the chance to browse the town square and visit a beautiful cathedral. There were many horse-drawn carriages available if you felt like an old-fashioned experience. At this point I was quite exhausted and ready to head back. Pictures were taken. Bus was boarded. Gracias, adios (Thank you, go with god).
The trip back to Costa Rica was a long one. We processed through immigration. Very similar to the morning process, only in reverse. In order to enter Costa Rica with a visa, you need to show your flight itinerary to prove when you will be leaving. Or so they say. I never had to show mine. I even got my visa extended to 90 days. Hmmm…
The guides were also eager to return home. We absolutely hauled ass, passing truckers and average drivers at blistering speeds. Not too many traffic cops in Costa Rica. I saw one once (previous San José trip) and they only wanted to check my passport to make sure I was allowed to be in the country.
Towards the end of our trip, our guide passed out Nicaraguan maracas as a keepsake. interestingly, there were names etched into each one. While they were passed out at random, everyone soon realized the names and began shouting to see if anyone had their name. After a fun tumbling of tourists tripping over each other to gain the perfect souvenir, we discovered Harold, the guide, has used the itinerary to get a personalized maraca for each passenger. He expressed his gratitude and safe travels. In record time, we were back in Guanacaste.
I enjoyed the trip overall. I plan to follow my own schedule next time I go to Nicaragua. Exploring locale for multiple days at a time. This trip was about the quantity of locations visited. I will focus on the quality of each place upon return.