Travelling to Nicaragua was never part of my plan. Yet suddenly I was on a plane to Managua. I threw caution to the wind and played it by ear…
Upon landing in Managua, it was easy to find my way out of the smallish airport. This was in a time before Google Maps was popular. I never intended to stay long in the capital. My plan was to move onto first León, then Granada. Both cities are about equidistant from the capital, so if you’re wondering which one to visit the answer is: both!
Using only my directional sense, I looked for the bus terminal to get out of town to León. I ended up in a maze of a market with no end in sight and panicked. I must have looked lost. Soon, a short Mayan-looking woman offered to escort me to where the buses– essentially vans – left town. The drive to León is punctuated with volcanoes, which I stared at from my seat in the van. My seatmates seemed completely unfazed by them as they slept or relaxed. Exhausted between my crack of dawn flights from New York to Houston and Managua to León, I was operating on pure adrenaline.
I’ll admit, I don’t remember much about arriving into town except for looking for a place to stay. That’s right: I came all the way to Nicaragua without a hotel booked. I ended up in a small guesthouse owned by an elderly lady who rented rooms in her home. The room consisted of a twin bed and a private bathroom. The room had a fan, which proved insufficient, as the window let in no circulation. The fan ultimately dying in the middle of night. I gasped for air and was only able to fall asleep after nearly drowning myself in cold shower.
The small city consists of buildings dating as far back as the early 1520s, when it was founded. This is what I’d come for! Aside from a Central American guidebook and a complimentary map I’d picked up, I didn’t exactly have an itinerary. I spent much of the day just wandering around. After hours of strolling, I found myself at a marketplace hawking such wares as bullfrog skin wallets and heart-shaped pendants with scorpions encapsulated in plastic. I recall the intense heat, which I soothed by sitting in a dark tavern, nursing an iced cold Toña.
Since my intention was to continue onto Granada, I left on an early bus, changing again in Managua.
Granada versus León
There’s a historical rivalry between León and Granada, two of the largest (which is relative) and most visited cities in Nicaragua. Both are pretty hot with average temperatures hovering around 90 degrees. If Granada is Rome, where all the glitz is, León is Naples, full of culture without frills. Granada felt like it could’ve been almost anywhere in Latin America; León has a very unique Nicaraguan feel to it. Granada is the more polished, brightly-painted of the two where buses filled with hordes of senior citizens from Arizona (or was it New Mexico?) go on guided tours. You’ll find Spanish churches but you’ll also find that bar with happy hour margaritas and nachos. León is León, without pretenses, and has nothing to prove to anyone.
Though both cities are landlocked, Granada boasts Lake Colcibolca (aka Lake Nicaragua) and Ometepe Island. I basked in the sun— and got burnt – lakeside but never ventured to the island, nor felt particularly compelled to jump in, which is rare for me. Parque Central and the cathedral is obvious. I preferred Parque Xalteva, which feels like a relic and has an equally grand church across the street. I liked strolling through streets filled with locals engaged in their quotidian routines and having entire side streets to myself.
However, perhaps the best adventure was yet to come. The next morning, I passed through the busy market place to board the bus to continue my trip onto Costa Rica. Unaccustomed to rustic travel, the bus was the type of early 1990s-style school bus I’d ridden as a child. The seats were worn. My posterior ached after several minutes and every bump in the road felt. This was the type of bus you threw your luggage on top of, sat three to a seat where chickens were sometimes your travelmates. But that wasn’t the last adventure I’d have.
In Colombia, I’d become accustomed to routine military checkpoints, but crossing land borders was something brand new. I knew in planning my trip (if you’d call it that) that I’d be crossing into Costa Rica. Somehow I failed to research what exactly that would entail. Still, once the bus arrived to its destination it still required a short taxi ride to the actual border crossing. With the passport stamp still wet, I discovered that the bus I anticipated catching to Liberia would not be arriving. Not that day, not the next, and likely no time soon. You see, it somehow evaded me that Central America was in the midst of the Swine Flu.
You can read more about my border crossing fiasco. Oh. And in case you’re wondering, despite my ill planning, complete oversight, and playing it by ear, I still did arrive to my destination in Costa Rica. Overall, I have zero regrets.