|Hostel in Leon. Pretty nice, but HOT.
Volcano Boarding was so fun! They picked up up at our hostel, took us to the shop, where we got free tank tops and boarded a private chicken bus with 35 other people for Cerro Negro, with Latin music and music videos blaring at top volume. It's about a 45 minute drive to the volcano, which is considered a very young volcano, first appearing in 1850. When you get to the volcano visitor's center, you sign in with your name and country, at which point it became apparent that about half of our group was from El Salvador and about half from Europe and Australia/New Zealand (remember this for the drive back).
Once you get to the base of the volcano, everyone is given a denim backpack that has a full yellow jumpsuit, goggles, and gloves, along with a board, which is basically a piece of plywood, to carry up the volcano. We were told it's about a 45 minute hike up the volcano - while it was true it took 45 minutes for the climb, it was about 20-25 minutes of climbing and 20-25 minutes resting at 2 different stops along the hike. Let's just say it was NOT intimidating or difficult after Acatenango, and I was nowhere near the back of the pack this time. And as a plus, we weren't sore the next day at all. As you'll see further down this post, our volcano trips took less and less effort as the trip went on.
The weather wasn't the greatest, but it turned out okay. The biggest immediate, noticeable difference between Guatemala and Nicaragua is the weather. Between Mexico and Guatemala, we had spent the last 1.5 months in high altitude and temperate climates - and then we got to Nicaragua. You get off the plane and are immediately hit with just heat and humidity, and it took some time to get used to. Anyways, for our hike up the volcano, we had some rain and a lot of clouds, but it wasn't uncomfortable - if anything, the rain made the hike more pleasant because you weren't roasting the entire time. However, the views from the top weren't the best because of the clouds - but it was still very cool.
|I wish I could find the other photo that goes with this. One of our leaders took a photo of me and Adam, then said, "Okay, new pose." Adam, with his quick thinking, just switches sides to my left. It cracked the three of us up.
I've found as I've gotten older, heights bother me more, more in a sense that I get a pit in my stomach and intimidated. It doesn't stop me from doing the activity, but I feel a bit sicker (as in, I went bungy jumping in January 2012 from 216 meters in South Africa. I had an OH SHIT moment right before I jumped, but I went. I don't know that I could do that at this point in my life). However, this was not scary and I wasn't nervous at all. I tied the free tank top around my mouth/nose (very necessary to have everything covered, there's volcanic rock flying up at you the whole trip!), sat on my board, and headed down the volcano through the clouds - and it was pretty fun. I fell off a bunch of times, but you go pretty fast (the record is 96 km/hr. Normal is probably around 30 km/hr) and it's over in a couple of minutes. Adam went after me, and used the GoPro to record it. We were probably in the first 1/4 of the group to go, and you wait at the bottom for everyone to finish, so there was a lot of waiting.
|Me, all dressed up and ready to go.
On the trip back to Leon, the music videos came on again, and the entire front of the bus, the crew from El Salvador was going crazy and having so much fun - while the back of the bus, the crew from Europe/Australia, etc., was way more subdued. I swear Despacito was played over and over and over, and they were having a dance party in the front of the bus - I texted my family the next day asking if it was a big song in the USA, because while it was popular in Central America, it's a Spanish song, so you never know how that travels (but we knew it was literally the most watched video of all time on YouTube). I was expecting an answer from my dad or Paige (via Pam, as my favorite 9 year old does not have a cell phone or WhatsApp), and was SHOCKED when the first person to reply, and quickly, was my mom. Now, anyone who knows my mom knows she is one of the greatest people in the world, someone I talk to constantly, and someone who knows me better than anyone except for maybe Adam - and vice versa (she can always tell when I've had a hand in picking out a present for her because I know her taste very, very well). However, she knows and cares very little about pop culture, particularly music - a running joke with my dad and me is that if Hotel California comes on the radio, we ask her who sings it. We think she FINALLY knows it's The Eagles. Anyways, SHE is the one who replied that yes, it was big, and not only that, replied that Luis Fonsi is on all the late night shows. I think this is when we understood the popularity of this song. Upon arrival back to the boarding shop, they take you to a local bar across the street for a beer, which was a nice way to end the day.
We spent the next day walking around Leon. The two biggest tourist cities in Nicaragua are Leon and Granada, and people typically prefer one or the other. We read that Granada is like the beautiful, popular cheerleader, and Leon is like the not as beautiful best friend who has way more substance and takes time to uncover, but is worth it when you do. Maybe we didn't have enough time, or maybe we're shallow, but we both preferred Granada to Leon. Leon just felt...eh. Desolate, empty, kinda sketchy.
So after volcano boarding in Leon, we headed south to San Juan del Sur, a beach town on the Pacific Ocean in very southern Nicaragua. We took a shuttle that stopped in Managua, Granada, and San Jorge before San Juan del Sur - and the shuttle itself was an adventure. On our first leg to Managua, the driver didn't do the best job tying the luggage to the roof, and about 15 minutes into the trip, luggage went flying - and the driver didn't even notice until passengers were like, WHOA, we need to stop. When we did stop, it wasn't our luggage that had gone flying, but the guests who it did belong to were able to stop and get everything (well, hopefully everything!). So the driver loads everything back up, ties it up, but this point takes the tarp off. About 10 minutes later, it starts pouring (this is NOT a surprise - it was very overcast!), so he gets out of the shuttle again, rearranges some stuff, and gets all the luggage into the van (with help from Adam and another guy). Why he didn't do this after luggage went flying, I'm still not sure, but it was okay. However, the worst part of the trip was (also in the Leon-Managua leg) when we saw a car that had crashed and a dead body with the face covered on the side of the road. I was a bit shook after that.
We picked up some people, dropped some people off, and made it to San Juan in the late afternoon - probably about a 6 hr trip total, although it probably should be like 2-3 hrs. We checked into our Airbnb, headed to the water area, and had some drinks and dinner at a restaurant with a pretty great view.
|Photos don't do it justice. The sunset the second night we were there was breathtaking.
Several people we talked to agreed it was the most incredible one they'd ever seen.
|Sunset fading away.
San Juan del Sur is a pretty well known beach town, particularly known for its surfing, and we were looking forward to a few days of relaxing. However, since it's famous for surfing, I did want to take a surf lesson - and it did not disappoint. There are tons of surf shops, but we decided to just book one through our Airbnb. The communication with our host was difficult at times - but not for the reasons you would think (language barrier). No, the issue was that the town lost power for a few hours, so emailing back and forth wasn't really possible with no wi-fi. We finally confirmed about 10 minutes before we were to get picked up, so we scrambled to get our stuff together and headed out.
Our lessons were me, Adam, and this guy Eric from DC, along with two instructors, Marlon and Jamir, and it was fantastic. The beach, Playa Remanso, was perfect. Not very big, and we arrived when it was not high tide, so we were able to learn without being intimidated. Now, I was the one who wanted to do surf lessons - Adam went along because there's very little that I'm pretty adamant about doing. He had been surfing twice before, once in Hawaii and once on Long Island, but said this was such a better experience. Jamir and Marlon would hold the board, tell you when to paddle, tell you how to focus on what you needed to do, etc., and we were both successful in standing and riding a few waves. After the 1.5-2 hour lesson, we were able to chill out on the beach and relax. Adam and Eric took the boards back out - I chose not to - but it was high tide, and the time between waves was very small, making it more difficult and less successful. The ride to/from the beach was pretty bumpy and muddy, and about 20-30 minutes, but man, this beach was perfect for learning. We had it pretty much to ourselves for 30-45 minutes before other groups showed up.
|Surf lessons. No pictures of the lessons - we didn't bring our GoPro.
When we got back, we met up at Eric's hotel, which was right on the water and had an awesome balcony and view. We had some drinks, went for dinner, and had a really nice night. We had booked three nights in San Juan, so we had the next day to relax and wander around the town. While food was not cheap in the least (it's touristy), it was quite good! We had met a couple from the UK on our shuttle to San Juan - they were going the opposite way we did (we went Leon, San Juan, Ometepe, Granada - they literally did the exact opposite), and we overlapped with them for a day in San Juan del Sur - so we spent the afternoon hanging out and comparing notes about where we'd been - and convincing them to climb Acatenango when they got to Guatemala - they hadn't heard about it, they were traveling for a total of 6 weeks but had just started. Charlie was a bit nervous about it as she is not someone who enjoys working out and considers herself not in shape, but I told her if I could do it, she could. And that it sucked, but it was pretty cool to say I hiked it. They ended up doing it, and their views were better than ours - their weather looked perfect based on Facebook pictures. We also advised them to pay a bit more than the $20 we had paid and maybe have better guides, which they did - Chris said their guides were awesome and that the ratio was like 3 or 4 to 1 (similar to us, they were not 20 and broke, so while they were traveling on a budget, they could spend a bit more when they wanted to).
|Blurry and cloudy, but happy. I'm also probably extra happy here because I had bought our plane tickets home that morning.
We did get to play bar trivia one night when we were there - and we won! Seeing as though we don't usually do that well in Brooklyn, this was great. We got 19 of 25 questions correct (next closest was 14 correct?), although in all fairness, there were some VERY easy questions. The prize was a bottle of ginger infused rum, but you couldn't bring it out of the bar, so you basically share it with everyone. Sucks, because I totally would've brought this back to the USA - it was incredible.
|Our prize for winning bar trivia!
One note about the food in San Juan del Sur. Since it's a pretty touristy place, food was not cheap but was good. We had some good Korean food, good bar food, and good seafood, but the most memorable food were the breakfast sandwiches at Dale Pues - specifically their use of cream cheese. I got a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich that had a light smear of dill cream cheese, and it was great; but Adam got a BLT two mornings in a row that had a light smear of homemade garlic cream cheese on it (instead of mayo - my mayo-hating self LOVED this). It was so delicious that we asked them how they made the cream cheese (fresh garlic, not garlic powder) and we replicated this recipe in Iowa a month or two later. HIGHLY recommend doing this. Yuuuuuuummmmmm.
After relaxing days and good food, we headed to Ometepe Island. Ometepe is an island in Lake Nicaragua that consists of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. The roads on Ometepe aren't the greatest, and it took about an hour to get to Hacienda Merida on some very off-road roads. We had a couple of relaxing days at Hacienda Merida, lounging in hammocks. The hacienda was great, the rooms were spacious and rustic, and the food was really good - buffet meals at a set time and ala carte the rest of the time. There was a large group of vet students from Oregon State at the hacienda, so it was pretty quiet while we were there, with the group in and out tending to animals and performing surgeries and procedures. There was a guy there who was a professor at Auburn whose wife was a vet working in conjunction with Oregon State, so we talked to him for a bit - turns out he graduated from Wake Forest a year before Pam, in the same major - they both said the name was familiar but they wouldn't recognize the other person. Still, small world.
|Approaching Ometepe. Wish we had gotten a shot with both volcanoes in it.
|View from the Hacienda.
|Yeah, the sunsets in Nicaragua were okay.
We did go kayaking while we were on Ometepe. It was a two person kayak, and we got to explore some beautiful areas around the island - lots of birds and turtles, and supposedly caiman (little alligators/crocodiles), which thankfully we did not see. Let's leave it at that and not go into the fighting that happens everytime we kayak or canoe together.
|View from the kayak.
Our last stop in Nicaragua was Granada, a beautiful colonial town. Our hostel was pretty new, and the only place we stayed in Nicaragua that had hot water (and air-conditioning!) and a swimming pool. Most of our time in Granada was spent by the pool, and we met some pretty cool people there as well. The one thing we really wanted to do in Granada was go to Volcano Masaya, an active volcano that you drive up. As I told my mom, there was NO effort involved in this - you literally are driven to the top of the volcano, where you get out and look into the crater where you just see bright, boiling lava. It was very, very cool. The rest of our group on that ride (there were 5 other guys) were annoying in that they got out of the truck at one of the stop points and then didn't get back in time for us to make that group - we had to wait another 20 minutes because other cars passed us and only a certain amount are allowed up at a time. In the end, we still got to see the volcano and it was pretty awesome. Out of the three volcanic "climbs" we did (Acatenango, Cerro Negro, and Masaya), this was Adam's favorite. I'm still undecided on mine - Acatenango was definitely the most out of my comfort zone, Masaya was the easiest, and Cerro Negro was probably the most fun.
|Hostel in Granada. It was beautiful!
|Looking into Volcano Masaya. Yes, that's lava.
After a bit over three months in Central America, it was time to head back home. We got to the airport right on schedule, had no issues connecting in Atlanta, and got to Newark a bit early, where we were picked up by my mom and my VERY surprised dad, who thought he was going to pick up the nephew of a good friend. Our timing perfectly coincided with their arrival, and my mom told my dad, "Look, there's an open spot over there, pull over," to which he replied, "In a minute, I'm letting that girl cross the street (I'm waving TO him, he's waving me across the street)." Mom says, "Which girl?" and he says, "That one (points). She kinds looks like Melissa. Wait. What? Huh?" He was so confused (I could see through the windshield) and my mom really wishes she had recorded it because he was so so confused and surprised. Thankfully the stone-cold, unemotional demeanor of my mom allowed her to keep this a secret for a week and his reaction is something that will make me smile whenever I think back on it. Mom and I got called asses a few times for doing this, but he was so happy to see us. Like my mom pointed out to him, this way he didn't need to worry all day about us traveling because he had no clue.
Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua were great - but it was time to explore the USA.