We spent the majority of our time in Costa Rica exploring its beautifully preserved jungles and rainforests. Being one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America, Costa Rica is on top of its game when recognizing the importance of conservation to the country's continued financial success. The extremely biodiverse rainforests are always exciting to walk through. You won't spot many large mammals, like you might see in Africa, but there are plenty of monkeys, sloths, snakes, colorful parrots and even super interesting leaf-cutter ants to keep you entertained.
By Dan, Jamie and Brad
Welcome back to the Branmie (Brad, Dan, and Jamie) Wherever the Wind takeover! The three of us were sufficiently brutalized by the Chicago winter that we decided to meet up with Jaitlin as they started to make their way through Central and South America. We were also joined by Kerry, Caitlin’s friend from the Peace Corps, and Evan, Jed’s friend from college. The five of us joined them in Nicaragua, reviews of which ranged from “It’s the new Costa Rica!” to “Why are you going THERE?!”
The next morning, we boarded a bus and headed southwest to San Juan del Sur, a beach town on the country’s Pacific coast. We rented a beautiful, mind-bogglingly cheap condo up on a hill, about a 15-minute hike from the beach. Most of our three-and-half days there were spent in a joyous cycle of swimming in the ocean, lying on the beach, eating and drinking along the coast, and taking a billion sunset photos. We hopped into the back of someone’s van one day for a day trip to Playa Madera, a beach about a 30-minute drive away known for its surfing that featured some of the biggest, most incredible waves we’d ever seen. We also rented a private boat tour one night, on which we consumed much Toña (the local beer of choice) and witnessed the best sunsets of all.
San Juan del Sur was much more beach town than tourist city, but we did enjoy hiking up to Cristo de la Misericordia, a giant Jesus statue overlooking the city in Río-like fashion, ziplining and watching Brad and Evan try fly-boarding, the latest futuristic adventure craze.
After serious contemplation of sending our passports on a one-way trip to the bottom of Masaya, we ventured into town for some bargain shopping at Mercado de Masaya, a local market, before embarking on a boat tour of Lago de Nicaragua. If you have tens of thousands of dollars to spare, consider purchasing one of the available little islands on this giant lake. We boated past many that had already been bought and built on by some local millionaires (such as the owner of the aforementioned Toña) with ridiculous amenities.
We were also boarded at one point by Lola and her child, monkeys well-known by the locals who inhabit one of the islands. Some of us welcomed their visit, while others cowered in fear that they might find it more appealing to try to eat us instead of the bananas our captain was shoveling out to them.
All in all, Nicaragua was a fantastic experience. The country is clearly developing, and its larger cities may look very different in another decade. We enjoyed a great mix of experiences, from the relaxation of the beach to the incredible views of an active volcano, and everything in between. Though we miss Jed and Caitlin dearly and can’t wait until they return to the States, we’re thrilled to have gotten to crash their tour around the world for many unforgettable moments.
Some of the most popular tourist attractions in Central America are its plentiful volcanoes. Many of them are truly spectacular, from their beautiful crater lakes to their still-smoking craters. A hike up a volcano is a truly awesome experience. But sledding down a volcano at 40KPH is a wholly different kind of experience.
There are only a few volcanoes in the world that have ideal conditions for the so-called “sport” of Volcano Boarding. Cerro Negro outside of Leon, Nicaragua, is one such volcano. It is a Cinder Cone Volcano, which means it erupts from the bottom and the debris causes it to build up into a cone shape. Most Cinder Cone Volcanoes only erupt once and then are permanently dormant. Cerro Negro, however, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, having erupted more than 20 times. It's frequent eruptions has caused it to be higher than most Cinder Cone Volcanoes and has resulted in layers of relatively fresh, fine ash covering its slopes. These conditions prompted several mountain bikers to try (and succeed) to break the downhill speed record a number of years ago (although one ended in a disintegrated bike and many broken bones). Some crazy Australians then decided to try and ride other things down the volcano. They eventually ended up with this sort of wooden sled as the best/most fun tool and people have been riding down Cerro Negro with this board ever since.
After a few braver people went first, it was my turn to go. With no option to back down, I leaned back and pushed off. I picked up speed pretty fast and was a bit nervous as I was drifting left and right. I soon got the hang of it though and was having a blast. I continued to pick up speed and rocks started blowing by my face. The goggles didn't seem to stop pieces of gravel from flying into my eyes, but I kept pressing through. It was amazing how smooth it was, like sledding down a giant snow covered hill. After about 30 seconds, I reached the bottom and hit a giant divot that flung me into the air. Somehow I managed to stay on the board and come to a relatively peaceful stop. I picked up my board from the top as it is too hot on the bottom from the friction to touch. It was then that I saw one of the guys who had gone before me, his head completely covered in fresh blood and dirt.
Turns out trying to break the speed record may not be the best idea. This guy had flipped off his board, and went tumbling down the hill, head first. And he wasn't the only one; about half the riders fell at least once, but none as bad or painful as him. Injuries while volcano boarding are not uncommon. Volcano Boarding at Cerro Negro was ranked by CNN as the #2 activity for a thrill-seeker (number one being flying a Russian Fighter Jet), so it attracts many daredevils who are trying to go as fast as possible. Many fail and get some gruesome injuries in the process. A trip to the ER post-volcano boarding is a pretty regular experience. But if you don't try to be a hero and just go at a “regular” pace, you should be fine.
I ended up clocking in at 40KPH (25 MPH), which was a respectable average pace for the guys of the day. The good news for the guy with the bloody head is he had the speed record of the day at a blazing 70KPH (44MPH)! His prize for the pain: a free shot (probably very much needed).
If volcano boarding doesn't sound like your thing, there are plenty of great volcano hikes in Central America. Our favorites were to the active, smoking ones, such as Masaya and Telica. At Telica, you can get ride up to the edge of the smoking crater, and if you look into it at night, you can even see some of the burning embers. The view of the sunset from up there is also spectacular. Definitely put a volcano visit on the top of your itinerary if you go to Nicaragua.
(Click any of the pictures below to see an enlarged gallery)
Sometimes you just don't click with a place. Your fellow travelers, the Internet, and the guide book seduce you into believing a certain place is worth the effort but when you get there it's disappointing. This is how we felt when we ventured to la Isla de Ometepe, a huge island in the vast Lago de Nicaragua (Nicaragua Lake). There were some missteps we took that could have changed our opinion and therefore this post is meant to give back what we taketh from the World Wide Web.
From the bus window, I was entranced. Isla de Ometepe is dominated by two volcanoes on either side of the island, the active La Concepcion, a perfect cone, and Maderas, which is extinct. Concepcion is nearly always ringed by clouds at the top, which looks super cool from a distance.
Problemo número uno: To get to the island requires a ferry ride on a pretty dinky ferry. It was a very windy day and as I stood on the mainland watching another boat bobbing right, left, up and down as if it were a booey, it was enough to make me queasy. Sure it's cheap, but the odds of capsizing and my ensuing nausea was reason enough to rethink the whole journey.
Problemo número Dos: The few small towns on the island are very spread out (an hour or two bus ride) and so it's important to stay in the one that's closest to the activities you want to do on the island. We weren't really sure what we wanted to do and ended up staying in Moyogalpa, the town where the ferry drops you off. There's not a lot to Moyogalpa. The only reason you should stay here is if you plan on hiking Concepcion, which is a grueling 8-10 hours, mostly in the exposed heat, and when you get to the top it's more likely than not that it's too cloudy to see beyond a few feet in front of yourself.
Problemo número tres: transportation on the island is very difficult. Only about one slow and bumpy chicken bus leaves each day to each of the other towns. The schedule isn't easy to find and isn't necessarily reliable, as we found out.
We stopped by the Santo Domingo beach on the northern part of the island for some snacks. After visiting the other beaches of Nicaragua, this paled in comparison. Lake beaches are usually kind of gross in my opinion anyways.
When we wanted to head back to Moyogalpa we really encountered some difficulties. The posted time for the next bus was 4. So we set off for a long walk to the bus stop. When we finally arrived, some friendly locals communicated that the 4 pm bus wouldn't be coming today and that was supposedly the last bus! In broken Spanglish a tiny old lady told us a detour, not on the map, to another major road with a 5 pm bus to Moyogalpa. So off we went, as did my imagination. What if no other buses or cars passed us?? What if we were stranded at night walking down this sparsely populated road many miles from Moyogalpa? After another long walk, we fortunately reached the main road. A pair of canoodling teens confirmed they were also waiting for a 5 pm bus. Hooray! We were saved! Just had to wait 30 min for the bus. When the teens then randomly jumped in a passing car instead of waiting for the bus, I got nervous. The sun was setting. Soon it would be dark. What if the bus never comes? Jed didn't seem too concerned, but I was very anxious. When that old American school bus finally rounded the corner, I was quite relieved. The route drove around the eastern side of the island right as the sun was going down and giving us our best view of Concepcion from the island yet. We decided to leave the next day, a day early, and go back to San Juan del Sur.
Staying somewhere different and having a vehicle would have made things easier on Ometepe. We considered renting a motorbike, but in our short time in Nicaragua had already encountered multiple people with serious wounds resulting from Ometepe motorbike crashes. Unless you are really hyped up to scale a volcano, which can be done much more easily in the northern part of Nicaragua, leave your Ometepe experience to the shores of the mainland. This was definitely the most stunning view and would save you the seasickness inducing ferry ride, among other travel pains and disappointments.
This is Caitlin and Jed's blog about our adventures.
Subscribe to our blog: