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How much does it cost to travel through Central America?

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Long-term travel is all about the benjamins. Your budget becomes your bible, how much (or little) you spend determines how long you will be able to keep up the lifestyle of constant travel. We have already posted our six-month budget and our 1-year budget, but both of these include time spent either in the U.S. or Europe, which are much more expensive and so don’t adequately reflect the cost of traveling in Central America.

This is why we wanted to write a separate post specifically breaking down the costs of traveling through this region, in order for those planning a trip to have a rough idea of how much traveling through Central America costs.

Overall Budget Breakdown

We spent exactly six months traveling through all Central American countries – Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – spending a total of $10,685.65 for both of us.

That is about $890.47 per person per month, or $30.36 per person per day (for the exact amount of days we were in Central America).

Central America moneyOriginally we had a rough goal in mind to shoot for under $1,000 per person per month, per month, but we ended up spending even less thanks to keeping a close eye on our spending. This number is the average over six months, but there were major differences in how we spent our money in the various countries, so we have also broken it down per country:

Central America travel budget breakdown per country

Belize: $54 per person per day

Belize was by far the most expensive country in Central America, but we enjoyed our time there immensely. We could have spent less here, but couldn’t pass up the adventure ops available like snorkeling and caving, which would have been much more expensive in Europe or North America. Minus the adventure, Belize would have cost around $40 per person per day.

Accommodation: $7.50 – $12.50 per person in a double room average A double room cost $25 on Caye Caulker, but only $15 in San Ignacio.
Transport: A long-distance bus from Belize City to San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border was $3.50, boats between Belize City and Caye Caulker were $10.
Food: $10 per person including beer. Beer $1.50 – $2.50.
Activities: Full day snorkeling tour $40, cave tours between $45 and $70 per person.

Belize snorkeling

Guatemala: $23.12 per person per day

We splurged constantly in Guatemala. We took advantage of the high quality international cuisine in Antigua and around Lake Atitlan, putting away pots of fondue and bottles of wine, and discovering the wonders of Israeli food. Still, we managed to spend less than $25 per person per day by staying away from overpriced tourist shuttles and keeping our booze easy and local, plus we chose budget accommodation under $10 per person in a private room.

Guatemala hostelsAccommodation: On average we spent $9 per person per night. The cheapest private room we stayed in was $4.90 per person, the most expensive was $16 per person.
Transport: Local buses cost between $0.50 and $3.
The most expensive bus we took was a night bus from Flores to Guatemala City for $29 each. After that, we only traveled by local buses and never spent more than $3.
Food: $6 – $10 per person including drinks. Beer $1 – $2.
Activities: Pacaya volcano $13, Tikal including transport & guide $30, ruins in Antigua $5

tienda Chichicastenango Guatemala

Honduras: $28.68 per person per day

Honduras can be done on the super cheap, but as we spent the Christmas holidays here, we treated ourselves to nicer hotels (maximum $25 for both of us together) and special holiday meals. Only for that reason did we end up spending more per day than Guatemala or El Salvador. We avoided the famous islands of Utila and Roatan, however, and visitors to the islands would most likely also average similar costs, as the mainland is considerably cheaper than these popular diving isles.

Accommodation: between $7.50 and $12 per person in a double room
Transport:
Buses are between $2 and $4, the most expensive bus ride was $7.
Food:
$5 – $7 per person including drink. Beer $0.60 – $1.50.
Activities: The most expensive activity was visiting the Copan ruins at $15 per person

Honduras Tegucigalpa church

El Salvador: $24.05 per person per day

Accommodation was the most expensive aspect of traveling in El Salvador – we found everything else (transport, food, drinks) super affordable. We did fall hard for pupusas; eating them every meal (almost) kept our food costs way down. In general El Salvador doesn’t have much in the way of expensive tourist sites, museums are free on certain days, and even surfing can be done for $10 to $20 per lesson.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room with shared bathroom, $12.50 per person in a double room with private bathroom and hot shower
Transport:
Buses are seriously cheap here, between $1 – $2, with the most expensive bus ride costing $4.
Food:
A meal was around $4 per person, including drinks (beer). Again, pupusas cost 40 cents each, and beer is usually $1.
Activities: The most expensive activity was a guided hike in Alegria for $7.50 per person.

Sunset over river El Salvador

Nicaragua: $31.81 (including the Corn Islands)/$20.76 (excluding the Corn Islands)

In Nicaragua, we treated ourselves to a well-earned splurge, and made the trip out to the Corn Islands. This raised our daily average significantly, but not everyone is going to make the trip to the Corn Islands. Without the trip, Nicaragua would have been the cheapest country in Central America for us. Even with eating out twice a day almost every day, we barely spent more than $20 per person per day.

leon hostelsAccommodation: $7.50 per person in a double room average
Transport: Buses were usually less than $1; the most expensive ride was $1.80
Food: Breakfast was between $2 and $3.50; dinner was $4 and max. $7 with beer between 50 cents and $1.20.
Activities: Movie theater tickets cost $1.90 (snacks around $1.80), daily bike rental $3.90

Horse-carriage granada nicaragua

Costa Rica: $26.62 per person per day

Rumor has it that Costa Rica is more expensive than the rest of Central America, but we had a great time and easily kept costs down. Sure, it was quite a shock to see the prices in Costa Rica after coming from super cheap Nicaragua, but they didn’t vary much from prices in Honduras or El Salvador. Spend your money wisely, and those extras such as zip-lining, guided hikes and National Park visits won’t break the bank, or put you above budget, but if you’re not careful (and you like to drink beer), it’s easy to burn through Colones in a snap. There is cheap accommodation in Costa Rica, but the quality you get for $20 here is certainly far less than in the rest of Central America.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room
Transport: $1.20 for short distance bus rides, $2.50 for medium-distance rides, $8.00 for long distance bus rides
Food: A meal in a restaurant or in a soda runs at around $5 to $9. Beer $2 – $3.
Culture: The National Parks in Costa Rica are exceptionally beautiful and well worth the entrance fees, which range from $10 to $20. Ziplining is around $40 from the cheapest provider in Monteverde.

Monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Panama: $35.71 per person per day

Like El Salvador, Panama also uses the U.S. Dollar, but here the inflation caused costs in Panama to be significantly higher than anywhere else in Central America. Goods and services here are often priced equally to the US thanks to a seriously large ex-pat population (especially in Panama City), but with beer still average 75 cents a bottle…who’s complaining! The islands of Bocas del Toro were above average in price, while the mountain town of Boquete was easily affordable. As a global city, Panama City is home to the finest luxury accommodation as well as 25 cent bus rides and street food for $1.

Accommodation: $10 per person per night – the cheapest accommodation was $6.50 per person in a triple room, the most expensive was $12 per person (also in a triple).
Transport: $1.50 for short-distance bus rides, $7 for medium distances, 12.50 for long distances. Inner city buses in Panama City cost between $0.25 and $0.50.
Food: A meal is between $3 and $8, depending on the location.
Culture: The Panama Canal visitor center at the Miraflores Lock is $8, a ferry ride to Taboga Island is $12 for a return ticket, and movie theater tickets are $3.

Panama Hats in Panama City

Practical information:

  • We were able to stick to our budget mainly because we used Lonely Planet’s Central America on a shoestring guidebook, which has super useful budget information for each individual country. It’s not a light book and it takes up quite a lot of space, but carrying it was well worth it for us (not only for budget tips, but also hostel recommendations, maps, and up-to-date information on how to get from A to B.)
  • We chose almost exclusively very cheap local transportation instead of the more expensive tourist shuttles.
  • We ate at cheap local restaurants but also opted for pricier tourist restaurants more often than other travelers. If you eat where the locals eat and sleep in dorm rooms, you can travel Central America on less money than we did.
  • Note that we didn’t party a lot while we were there – we know lots of backpackers who party much more in Central America than we did – so if you’re planning on going out a lot, make sure to add that to your budget.
  • Wondering what to pack for your trip to Central America? Check out our packing list for the things we can’t travel without and the gear we’ve ditched over time.

Have you traveled through Central America? If you have, what countries did you find budget-friendly? Where did you splurge? If you haven’t gone through Central America, let us know if you plan to go and if you need any budget advice.

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33 things we love about Nicaragua

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Every once in a while, a country really takes us by surprise, like our deep love affair with Mexico. We had an inkling we would love Nicaragua, and after spending six weeks here, it was easy as pie to come up with a long list of favorites. Read on for thirty three things we love about Nicaragua, in no particular order.

1.    Leon
Well, we say in no particular order, but number one is by far our Nicaraguan number one. Leon is our favorite city in Nicaragua. It is constantly buzzing with vibrant, friendly locals, interesting colonial architecture, one of Central America’s most stunning cathedrals and countless restaurants and bars to eat and drink your nights away. We could easily spend much more time in this scorching hot city!

Orange truck in Leon Nicaragua

2.    Gallo Pinto
This dish, called ‘painted rooster’ is the national dish both of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (we preferred its taste in Nicaragua). Consisting of rice, beans and a magical mix of spices, we could literally eat Gallo Pinto morning, noon and night, although it is usually eaten for breakfast.

3.    La Calle Calzada in Granada
Normally we wouldn’t choose the main tourist center of a city as one of our favorite spots, but Granada’s Calle Calzada is lined with full green trees and one brightly colorful house after the next, from the Cathedral all the way down to Lake Nicaragua. Strolling past the (admittedly overpriced) restaurants and bars, the street is buzzing with diners, drinkers and street performers ranging from acrobats and breakdancers to a slew of international jewelry-sellers.

Calle Calzada Granada Nicaragua4.    Counting the stars on Little Corn Island
Every evening, as we walked back to Little Corn Beach and Bungalow hotel along the deserted beach, we swear we could see almost every star in the sky, which really made us realize just how remote this little island was in the middle of vast Caribbean sea.

5.    Pigs roaming the beach of Poneloya and the streets in Balgue on Ometepe Island

Poneloya Pig on beach

6.    The California feeling of San Juan del Sur

7.    Flor de Caña rum

The national rum of Nicaragua, this drink is sold throughout the world as one the best rums. Luckily, in Nicaragua, this homegrown drink is both delicious and cheap! Nicaraguans traditionally order an entire bottle, along with water or Coke, and split it across a table of four…often times, they then order another!

8.    The horse-drawn carriages
All over the country, in little villages as well as big towns, the horse-drawn carriage is a part of everyday life.

church & horse carriage in Masaya Nicaragua9.    El Desayunazo
Our favorite breakfast place in Leon, which made for some of our top food moments of 300 days of travel! We usually ordered Gallo Pinto and Huevos Rancheros.

10.    Riding our rented bicycles around Granada
We would encourage anyone who visits Granada to get out and see beyond the well-maintained town center. Our ride revealed a city with a very uneven distribution of wealth, much different to Leon, as well as the striking ruins of the old hospital and a peaceful poetry park far from the city center.

11.    The perfectly shaped volcano Concepcion of Ometepe

Volcano Concepcion Ometepe Island12.    Leon’s Central Market
By far one of the cleanest markets in Central America, Leon’s market is filled with friendly vendors, super cheap fruits & vegetables and is a ‘real’ market not overrun by tourists.

13.    The relaxing effects of a lazy day at Laguna de Apoyo

14.    Public transportation is easy
Throughout Nicaragua, using public transportation is easy. The buses are cheap, never as crowded as Guatemala, and some were even pretty comfortable.

15.    Cheap street food in the Parque Central in Granada
Eating out in Granada can be ridiculously overpriced, aimed at the surprisingly large number of high-end tourists who flood the city. However, the city’s central park is anchored by four outdoor restaurants which serve up typical Nicaraguan food at typical Nicaraguan prices, plus there are several street food stands spread throughout the park, too.

Street food in Granada16.    The Colibri Hostel in Leon
This hostel
was our home for two full weeks, and we can highly recommend staying here.

17.   Toña beer
Maybe it was due to the hot, sunny days, but we loved Nicaraguan beer more than any other in Central America and Mexico. Our favorite by far was the delicious Toña beer! We miss you Toña!

18.    The creative street art in the northern city of Estelí

Esteli street art19.    Rocking chairs!
We loved rocking away in them or just watching the Nicaraguans chilling in their rocking chairs on the sidewalk in front of their house.

20.    Exploring  Masaya by horse-drawn taxi
Sure, you can jump in a horse-drawn carriage made for tourists in Granada, but while we were in the nearby city of Masaya, we discovered that the locals get from A to B by way of horse-drawn taxi. For less than a dollar we got a ‘lift’ from the central park down to the beautiful promenade overlooking the lake and the Masaya volcano.

21.    Macuá
The national drink of Nicaragua, Macuá is a sweet cocktail with Flor de Caña rum and several fruit juices. Fabulous!

Macua Cocktail22.    South Bay beach on Big Corn Island
The beautiful white-sand beach is lined with palm trees and crystal clear water.

23.    El Rincón Pinareño restaurant in Estelí
This clean, bright local favorite has a large menu with Cuban and Nicaraguan dishes. We had the best Yucca dish in all of Nicaragua here, plus they offer a great selection of mouth-watering cakes.

24.    Chicken Buses, literally.
Latin America is famous for their ‘chicken buses’ but Nicaragua had more chickens and roosters per capita than anywhere else we experienced in Central America.

Chicken on bus in Nicaragua25.    Boarding down the Cerro Negro Volcano near Leon

26.     Pan y Paz
The French owner of this Leon cafe makes deliciously fresh chocolate croissants and brie baguettes – a rare find in Central America!

Pan y paz in Leon27.     Passionate politically-charged poetry
Poetry in Nicaragua remains a relevant political tool and reveals the passion of the people. The national newspaper includes a poetry section every day, and internationally-famous poets, like the Leon local Ruben Dario, are cherished by all.

28.    Mama Sara
Mama Sara runs a little (unmarked) guest house in San Juan del Sur, and was one of the warmest Nicaraguans we met. She treated guests like her very own children, making us traditional food and drinks, and always making sure we had everything we needed. If you arrive in San Juan del Sur and a nice lady on her bicycle introduces herself as Mama Sara, make sure to go to her house at once!

29.    Choys Maní
This tasty little chocolate bar is similar to a Snickers but much better.

Choys Mani chocolate bar30.    Pathways on Little Corn Island
This tiny Caribbean island has no roads, only pathways, which makes the island feel that much more remote.

31.    The revolutionary spirit of Leon
Leon was the home of the revolutionaries, and this passion can still be seen in the street art, graffiti, murals and museums.

A C Sandino Wall Painting in Leon Nicaragua32.    Cooking an Old Indian with Doña Ana

33.    Mariposa
We haven’t spoken much about our love at first sight experience in Leon as it was too close to our hearts. We fell in love with Mariposa, a little stray dog in Leon who instantly became attached to us. We bought her food, took her around town with us each day, even bought her a collar and leash. She was so well-behaved and loved us so much, people on the street would always remark what a great dog she was as we walked by. We almost took her with us. But after several long discussions we decided it would be better to find her a home in Leon and vowed not to leave until she was in safe, loving hands.  The owner of the Via Via hostel took her in, and Mariposa got a new family with three other canine brothers and sisters. If you go to Leon, make sure to give a bit of your patronage to the caring, good people at Via Via (and if you ask about Mariposa, please give us an update!)

Dani & Mariposa in Leon

If you have visited Nicaragua and share our love for the country, please add your favorite things in the comments below!

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California Dreamin’…. in Nicaragua

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After browsing through the enormous selection of recent bestsellers (in English!) at El Gato Negro café and bookstore, Dani and I took a seat at one of the colorful tables by the window and ordered one creatively-named bagel breakfast and splurged on an overpriced but tummy flattening blueberry and spirulina health smoothie. While we waited for our food in the restaurant packed with Americans, we watched out the window as six very built blond surfers loaded up their truck with their boards for a day out on the waves.
San Juan del Sur house NicaraguaWith the sounds of surfer talk like ‘gnarly’ and ‘dude’ ringing in our ears, the morning sun could have easily been shining over Santa Monica or Venice, California, but we were actually seated at a restaurant thousands of miles south on the Pacific coast in small beach town called San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. After traveling through the country from Esteli in the north through Leon, Managua, the Corn Islands, Granada and the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, it was hard to believe that this surfer town could possibly be in the same country.

San Juan del Sur NicaraguaLocated 45 minutes from the border to Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur combines the laid back surfer culture of Costa Rica with a touch a North American infrastructure and culture, all at Nicaraguan prices. You will find the bright colored houses which are typical for Central America but also a few new modern-style apartment buildings, which are clearly aimed at the North American expats – of which there are plenty. The range of accommodation, from hostels to beach resorts, fits all budgets for surfers and family holidaymakers alike. For visitors who speak no Spanish, there are plenty of ‘gringos’ here to talk to, but many people who come to San Juan del Sur find it to be the perfect place to take Spanish classes in between surf lessons or lying on the beach.

Beach in San Juan Del Sur NicaraguaFar from an ‘authentic’ Nicaraguan feeling, San Juan is well-loved by international tourists – a fact which is reflected in the relatively high prices, easily comparable to California, in restaurants and bars throughout the town. However, eating cheap is still possible by eating in the inexpensive sodas, or local eateries. The term ‘soda’ actually describes cheap Costa Rican food spots, and the tradition has crossed the border thanks to the high number of Costa Rican tourists who choose San Juan del Sur as their own beach getaway. Several budget hostals also have kitchens, making it possible to feel right at home in San Juan del Sur – the perfect place to kick back for several days.

House in San Juan del Sur NicaraguaThe long, sandy beach in town, never very full, is set in a beautiful bay, where the water has nearly no waves at all. There are even better beaches 10 – 20 minutes outside of the town (especially for surfing), and can be reached by one of the surfer shuttles which leave at 10am each day from outside of the countless surf shops, or you can take a taxi for around $10 or rent a bicycle which allows you to explore several of the nearly-deserted beaches up and down the coast. San Juan del Sur has long, wide streets with next to no traffic, safe for both bicycles and pedestrians alike.

Tona Victoria Frost Beer San Juan del Sur NicaraguaNo matter how much of that California feeling you may get, San Juan del Sur has managed to maintain its Nicaraguan charm. Front porches are lined with rocking chairs, vendors selling granizados and Chicha push their carts through the streets and the people are open and genuinely friendly. While the store shelves are lined with Pop Tarts and Oreos, the famous Flor de Caña rum is still cheap as chips, so make sure to have at least one good rum night out , or at least take advantage of the countless happy hour 2×1 beer and cocktail specials.

Starting early is a tradition here, so grab a drink at one of the many beach bars and catch a breathtaking sunset in the bay over the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon which happens like clockwork nearly every day in this relaxed beach town.
Sunset in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

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The day we cooked an Old Indian

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We arrived sweaty and hopeful at La Siesta Perdida in Leon for our cooking course – sweaty, thanks to a ten-minute walk through the unforgiving 9am heat; and hopeful, since the course had already been rescheduled once the day before. We stepped through the still-closed hostel doors and the bar reeked of that unmistakable morning-after party smell. A Dutch girl sitting behind the bar jumped up and introduced herself as our guide for the day.

Not exactly who we had expected to teach us to prepare a traditional Nicaraguan dish, our looks turned confused, before she explained she would accompany us to the market, help us pick up the necessary ingredients and together we head over to Doña Ana’s house, where the cooking course would take place.

By 930am, Leon’s market is always buzzing. Fruit and vegetable sellers interrupt gossip sessions to shout prices and deals to passersby who bargain their way along the rows of stands. The two of us feel right at home shopping in Central American markets, and were excited when handed a list of ingredients and set off to hunt out all the ingredients for Indio Viejo, or ‘Old Indian’, a traditional Nicaraguan dish (though normally cooked with meat, we were making a special vegetarian version).

Market leonDespite being fluent in Spanish, there were several items we did not know, like achiote, a red powder that both flavors and colors soups and stews. We chatted more than usual to the vendors, learning about new spices. We were introduced to a national drink, a pink milky corn-based drink called Chicha, sampled some very salty cubes of fried cheese and were shocked to discover the dubious culinary specialty of freshly prepared lizards. Of these, thankfully only the achiote was on our list, along with fresh tomatoes, peppers, plantains, oranges, onions, corn meal, salt and oil.

Hands full with small plastic bags, we joined 20 locals in the back of a pick up truck, the local public transportation, and held on for dear life as we lurched forward and slammed on the brakes across town to Subtiava, the indigenous area of Leon. Although it was fascinating to see this part of town where few tourists visit, this neighborhood was not quite what we pictured when we signed up. This was our first cooking class ever, and we had both always imagined standing behind a large counter with stainless steel knives and large pots and pans sizzling and boiling away on a fancy electric stove. Perhaps we had been picturing the course in Italy, not in Nicaragua.

We hopped off the still moving truck, walked ten minutes, turned into a dirt yard, walked past a wooden ring used for cock fighting and were greeted by Doña Ana, who showed us where we could set down the ingredients in the outdoor kitchen next to her tiny tin house.  Here we would prepare the ingredients, and the cooking itself was to be done in a giant steel pot on an open flame out in the yard.

Indio Viejo on the stove
But first we were led three houses up the dirt road to prepare our own tortillas to accompany the dish. The four women who work here each make over 2,000 tortillas per day at this mini tortilla factory – some for the neighbors, a few restaurants, but mostly enough for the hospital in town. The women were too busy flattening, patting, twisting and flipping tortillas (and singing along to evangelical gospel music between giggly gossip sessions) to do more than quickly show us the ropes.

Tortilla making Jess
Tortillas were surprisingly difficult to make, and the two of us must have looked pretty silly saddled up to the table making one tortilla every five minutes. After we churned out ten, we paid the ladies and went back to make lunch.

Doña Ana couldn’t have been a better teacher, and while we prepared the Indio Viejo, we learned all about her husband, her children, the grandchildren, and many of the neighbors as well, played with the cats, laughed at the roosters and ooh-ed and aw-ed over the week old puppies in the back yard.
The dish itself is actually a breeze to make, similar to a nice, thick stew, and as soon as it was ready, we sat down with Doña Ana and her daughter, who told us more stories as we stuffed ourselves silly with our vegetarian version of this classic Nica dish.

Indio Viejo & TortillasAlthough cooking this old Indian wasn’t exactly the type of cooking class we may have had in mind, the entire experience went way beyond preparing a recipe. The insight into the Nicaraguan way of life was priceless, from meeting the tortilla makers to seeing inside Dona Ana’s very simple two-room house, meeting her family and hearing all the neighborhood gossip. It was an unforgettable cultural experience which we can highly recommend to anyone. Speaking Spanish is a definite advantage, and this is definitely the perfect way to practice your skills as well.

This tour was available through Nicasi Tours at La Siesta Perdida. The company focuses on intercultural experiences rather than adventure tours.

How to Cook an Old Indian

(for the veggie version, just leave out the meat)

Ingredients for four people

3 yellow plantains
Tomatoes to taste
Onions to taste
2 tsp of achiote paste (similar to paprika)
Orange juice to taste
¼ liter of vegetable oil
1 bunch of peppermint
Salt
Tortilla dough (enough for 10 tortillas)
500 gr of beef

Vegetables for Indio ViejoPreparation

If making a non-vegetarian version, cook the meat with salt until it softens. In the meantime, cut the veggies into long slices and plantains in cubes. Mix two liters of water with the tortilla dough and achiote and mix until there are no lumps. Mix in salt and orange juice. Add beef and vegetables into the pot and place pot over a high flame. Stir often while mixture boils –  lumps will occur if you don’t stir. To thicken, add more dough. For a more colorful dish, add more achiote.

Enjoy!

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The Corn Islands: Big Corn vs. Little Corn

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So you’ve read our article on Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and have decided that the off-the-beaten-path Caribbean adventure is indeed worth a visit. The key question now is which of the two islands, Big Corn or Little Corn is right for you.

south beach on Big Corn Island

Located 50 miles off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, these two islands are nowhere near the better known Caribbean islands, but still have the same stunning features –white-sand beaches, crystal clear water, breathtaking sunsets and palm trees as far as the eye can see. What sets the Corn Islands apart from the more well-known Caribbean islands is the lack of 5* luxury resorts or fancy spa hotels and forget about an afternoon of cocktails at a swim up bar.

What sets the two islands apart is the fact that while Big Corn has an airport, roads, cars, international cuisine options and 24-hour electricity, just a 25 minute boat ride away Little Corn Island is a very remote island where aside from getting out on the water, the only thing to do is relax.

Little Corn Island

Getting to Little Corn is the only real adventure; the rest is truly about relaxation. Little Corn is reached first by flying in to Big Corn from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, making your way down to the ‘dock’ and jumping in a simple motor boat which takes you to the smaller island. The day before we traveled to Little Corn, one of the boats had capsized at sea, and although rescue boats were immediately at hand and no one was hurt. Pack your belongings water-tight and hold on, because if you are up for that little adventure, you will land on a tiny island without any motorized vehicles and a laid-back way of life.

Little Corn ferryHere, wheelbarrows are the common means of transport. Don’t expect paved roads (although on the West side of the island there is a paved footpath), and there’s no electricity either – at least not before 2pm each day, so switch off your Blackberries, pull up a hammock and get ready to relax for a few days.

Walk around the 1.6 sq km island in about two hours, and cross from west to east side in about 10 to 15 minutes. During the day, you might meet Frank, who will climb up a tree and cut down a coconut for you for a buck. You can do it yourself for free, as did fellow vacationers we met here.

Frank cutting coconuts on Little Corn IslandIf crossing at night, bring a flashlight, as the main east-west path is actually a trail through the jungle, although the closer to the beach you get, the path is lit by the millions of stars in the sky. Take a boat trip out off the coast and snorkel, or join the many avid divers who enjoy the great diving off the coast of the Corn Islands.

In terms of food, don’t expect anything fancy. Shops sell basic essentials and there are a few simple restaurants along the main path on the West side of the island, including a pizza place, a café with muffins and quesadillas, and a few places that serve cheap, local food. The island doesn’t have an ATM (yet) and cash is essential, so make sure you get enough cash while you are on Big Corn Island.

Huevos Rancheros on Little Corn IslandWho might prefer Little Corn Island?

  • Adventurous travelers who don’t mind packing a flashlight and insect repellent when going on vacation
  • Travelers who like to get to know a place and its people well, and meet other travelers
  • Families with kids looking for family-friendly adventure
  • People who don’t mind basic accommodation, are not freaked out by the occasional spider or mind eating at local hole-in-the-walls

Fresh catch on Little Corn IslandWhere to stay:

We loved that even with quite a few hotels for such a small island, it felt like an unexplored piece of land in the middle of the ocean. The beaches are gorgeous and yet completely empty, the people are friendly and you can get a good feeling of how the islanders live rather than being tucked away in a resort somewhere.los delfinos hotel room Little Corn Island

  • Grace’s – Cool Spot for shoestring travelers with no fear of insects (US$15 for a beachfront bungalow for 2 people with shared bathroom, US$25 with private bathroom, no wi-fi)
  • Carlito’s for travelers who don’t need much comfort (Beachfront bungalows with private bathroom from US$20, no wi-fi)
  • Hotel Los Delfinos for the budget conscious (US$50 for a double room with hot shower, free wi-fi)
  • Little Corn Beach & Bungalow for a bit more comfort (from US$64 + 15% tax for a double room with hot shower, free wi-fi)

corn island hotels

Big Corn Island

Coming from the mainland, Big Corn feels tiny, but returning here from Little Corn, the island earns its name. The population is 7 times that of Little Corn, and yet Big Corn still feels sleepy. The island is still walkable at 6sq km, although here hopping in a cheap cab makes much more sense to get from A to B. You can easily cut across the airport runway whenever the two planes that fly in and out each day are gone.

big corn island beach Despite the more developed infrastructure on Big Corn, there is not an awful lot to do here either. No shopping, little entertainment and relatively few hotels scattered around the isle. The electricity is on 24 hours a day, which makes getting online easier, and lazing around watching TV possibly an all-day activity.

Diving and snorkeling are possible from here, as is cruising around in a golf cart. enjoy the fabulous beaches, drink cocktails while watching the sun set on Southwest Bay beach, where the Arenas hotel even has white leather lounge sofas right on the beach. Nicaragua is big into baseball, so fans of the sport (or anyone looking for entertainment) can head to the well-built baseball stadium which turns into the place to be for the entire island once a week.

Sunset on Big Corn IslandBig Corn Island does not feel as secluded as Little Corn and is missing that deserted island feeling. Whereas on Little Corn, you can spend your days walking through the luscious green coconut palm tree woods to find small beaches around the island, Big Corn has only a few beaches (though bigger than the ones on LC). In fact, the whole north part of the island seems rather rough and not suitable for swimming.

The food choices on Big Corn are considerably more expensive, but the island has everything from Caribbean and Indian curries, to Italian, vegetarian and top sea food choices.

Who might prefer Big Corn?

  • Travelers who prefer a little bit more luxury and easier travel options.
  • Those who prefer taxis or golf carts rather than doing everything on foot.
  • Tourists who just want to relax in one place rather than doing much exploring.

south beach big corn islandWhere to stay:

The range of hotels is wider on Big Corn, with more shoestring cheapies as well as a higher level of luxury.

  • Beachview Hotel for shoestring travelers (US$15 for a double with shared bathroom, US$25 with private bathroom, TV and AC, no wi-fi)
  • Martha’s B&B – great rooms, brand new TVs and delicious breakfast (US$50 + 15% tax, no wi-fi)
  • Arenas Hotel for a comfortable beach vacation (rooms starting at US$75 for 2 people, free wi-fi)
  • Casa Canada for the most luxurious getaway and the only infinity pool on the island (US$119 + 15% tax, free wi-fi)

Marthas B&B Big Corn IslandHave you visited the Corn Islands? Which island do you prefer – Little Corn or Big Corn? Where would you go for the perfect Caribbean vacation?

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Nicaragua’s Caribbean: Are the Corn Islands worth a visit?

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Big Corn Beach from planeBefore we had even eaten the free cookie and coffee, the captain had already turned on the fasten seat belt signs and just 50 minutes after the flight took off from Managua International Airport, we were landing on an air strip set in green fields dotted with tin houses, palm trees and Caribbean English speakers. We had arrived on Big Corn Island, one of two Caribbean islands of Nicaragua (the other, smaller island is very appropriately named Little Corn Island).

There is no feeling like stepping out into the Caribbean. No matter where you are – The Dominican Republic, Barbados, Belize, or here on the Corn Islands, the air, the white sand and that easygoing feeling hit immediately and from the time your feet are on solid Caribbean ground, your hand feels empty whenever not clutching an alcoholic beverage.  However, if you are looking for an all-inclusive beach getaway involving hours on a sprawling white sand beach, swim-up bars and all night dancing, the Corn Islands are not for you.

Palm trees at sunsetWhat are the Corn Islands?

The Corn Islands are two dots in the ocean 70 kilometers (50 miles) east of Nicaragua’s (in)famous Moskito coast. Their population, combined, is just under 8000 people, with Big Corn being home to over 3/4 of the total. Although tourism plays a major economic role on both Corn Islands, both Big Corn and Little Corn maintain a well-kept-secret feeling. Hotels don’t line the shores but rather dot them, and while there are four-star hotels, none are over-sized or even large and there is plenty of budget accommodation on the Corn Islands as well.

Beach shacksDrinkers can stay out late on either island, but are stuck with tiny tiki bars or hotel rooms, as there are no nightclubs on either island. Upon landing on Big Corn we couldn’t help but giggle at the arrogance of this place calling itself ‘big’. Upon returning from the 45 minute boat ride back from Little Corn a week later, however, Big Corn’s paved streets, horn-honking taxis and larger hotels felt like the big city next to Little Corn Island, where there are only paths, no paved roads at all, no cars, no golf carts, not even many bicycles. The island is so small and relaxed, the only gear you need to get around are your two feet and fins and a mask should you decide to dive or snorkel while on the island. Little Corn just got electricity a few years back, and still only comes on for half the day.

Sure, Big Corn has 24 hour electricity, but this doesn’t make it the luxurious island destination you might imagine before booking tickets. Life on both islands is quiet, people don’t have much and no one really seems to care. The remote location means that many times things don’t work, or they run out. This makes the holiday to the Corn Islands more venturesome, but in the end, especially on Little Corn Island, there is nothing more to do than read a book, snorkel or dive, and relax in the 30 C / 85 F year-round temperature.

Little Corn deserted beachWho would find the Corn Islands worth a visit?

Holidaymakers

The Corn Islands really are the perfect get-away for stressed-out city folk, but only for those looking for an exotic, off-the-beaten path location reachable only by a flight to Managua, short flight over to Big Corn, and then a 40 minute boat-ride to Little Corn and back again. For families with kids in particular, Little Corn island seems a great option, as the hotels on the far side of the island are remote, have plenty of space, and the kids can play all day. At the Little Corn Beach and Bungalow, we watched two families with a combined total of seven kids tie coconuts to ropes and make up games which required dragging them around a makeshift racecourse for at least five hours. Bet they were in bed early that night! For all-inclusive types, the Corn Islands are a no go, you might rather look into Barbados holidays where you can find plenty of inexpensive vacation resorts.

Visitors to Nicaragua

For those who visit Nicaragua’s well-worn tourist sites, we would definitely recommend adding the Corn Islands to your itinerary. Sure you might get enough beach in San Juan del Sur and island like on Ometepe Island, but the Corn Islands are a bumpy five to eight hours boat ride off the coast, and offer a Caribbean side of Nicaragua that can only be felt here. If you are a fan of Nicaragua, then the islanders living out in the middle of the wide ocean are an integral and irreplaceable piece of the Nicaraguan cultural identity puzzle. We met a great Alaskan couple who chose Nicaragua as their honeymoon destination, and they chose the Corn Islands as the beach getaway portion and spent the rest of the time exploring Granada, Leon and a couple of country/lakeside locations. In their case, the Corn Islands were the perfect relaxation part of an exciting three week getaway.

For city breakers and culture vultures, the Corn Islands are not recommended.

Big corn beach`Backpackers and Budget Travelers

Despite the silver-haired tourists that flood the mainland town of Granada, Nicaragua most tourists in Nicaragua appear to still be young backpackers or budget travelers working their way either North or South through Central America. During our time on the Corn Islands, we did not come across many of these travelers at all. Mostly couples and families who were either on vacation or were seriously into diving.

During our stay on the Corn Islands, we spent  shockingly over our budget. This was a full-blown Caribbean vacation rather than just another place to travel to, putting both Big Corn and Little Corn Island out of reach of the average backpacker.

Clear water South BeachThe journey to arrive on the Corn Islands is either complicated or generally above a backpacker’s budget. Travelers can choose to take the six hour bus ride east from Managua through the jungle and the Moskito coast to Bluefields, overnight, and then take a choppy five to eight hour boat ride to Big Corn island which comes out cheaper than booking an $170 round-trip flight from Managua to Big Corn… but not by enough to make that trip worth it. Once you get to the islands, you can stay to a strict budget, but it is a challenge. All basic supplies are flown in and therefore more expensive and hotel rates run high. Travelers on a tight budget should stick to San Juan del Sur (or all of Costa Rica) for beaches, wait until the Mexican Riviera Maya where the sand is just as white, the water just as deliciously chartreuse and there are plenty of hostels just a short walk from an easy to reach bus station.corn island hotels

In general, is it worth it to visit the Corn Islands?

The snorkeling and diving off Belize or Honduras is better, the Caribbean feel can be had in  Bocas del Toro (Panama), Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast (Puerto Viejo / Manzanillo) or on Caye Caulker in Belize for less money and with less effort. However, if you’ve got the extra cash or the desire to check off one of the 1,000 places to see before you die off your list, go for it.

If you are a frequent Caribbean traveler who is tired of the culture-less package deals, then a trip to the Corn Islands is worth it, just to see the unchanged multi-lingual, multi-cultural mix that is truly Caribbean and at the same time 100% Nicaraguan, then the Corn Islands, both Big Corn and Little Corn, could not be more worth a visit.

Little Corn bay1
If you decide to visit the Corn Islands, check out our post: Big Corn vs. Little Corn Island.

Have you heard of the Corn Islands? Are they on your list of places to see? Or have you been to the Corn Islands? Would you agree with our opinion?

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Hotel Tip Of The Week: Little Corn Beach & Bungalow, Nicaragua

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Arriving at Little Corn Beach & Bungalow (LCBB) feels like how Tom Hanks must have felt in the movie Castaway, except we were there on purpose. The remote Caribbean island is either a six to eight hour boat ride from Nicaragua’s Moskito Coast or a one-hour flight from Managua to Big Corn Island, followed by an adventurous 25-minute boat ride to Little Corn, the appropriately named smaller of the two islands. You quickly realize that this is far from a familiar Florida vacation.

Assuming you have called ahead to reserve a room (a must!), you will be greeted at the dock by an English speaking member of LCBB staff, all of whom outside of the owners Kristine and Scott are native Nicaraguans. The owners are from Colorado and only opened Little Corn Beach and Bungalow at the end of 2009, which makes their inclusion into the book 1,000 Things to Do before you die just that much more impressive.

Suitcases belonging to LCBB guests, or in our case backpacks, are loaded into a wheelbarrow and the long trek to the hotel begins along a dirt path which ends at the beach on the other side of the island. The twenty-minute walk snakes between plots of land, past houses and shortly, deep into the forest. No signs indicate your path, just the well-worn grass and it would have been impossible to find the hotel otherwise, which lies just a three minute walk along the nearly deserted white sand beach.

Once we (finally) reached Little Corn Beach and Bungalow the owners welcomed us and gave us a run down of how the eco-friendly island hotel works, from recycling and purifying rainwater to drink and reduced rate water bottle refills to water-saving shower methods and Little Corn’s reduced electricity. The island’s generator is not turned on until 2pm each day, which means no electricity to make the breakfast and no wi-fi until mid-afternoon each day, all the way until the wee hours of the morning, around 3am, when power is cut again.

The LCBB is set up as nine bungalows in a slight U shape, all open onto the beach, with two chairs on a front porch facing the sea. Each bungalow is named after a famous shipwreck – we stayed in the Gilligan Bungalow. The theme in each room is subtle, not cheesy, and the beds are so deliciously comfortable that falling asleep to the sound of the waves, not 60 feet away, couldn’t be more relaxing. We would love to be able to give more information about the rooms, but it was very difficult to nail down the owners for more than a few seconds at a time  to learn more about the place.

The open area between the bungalows and the beach is filled with no less than five hammocks slung between the perfect hammock-hanging palm trees. Although it appears that nature created this amazing setting naturally, watching the way Kristine and Scott spend the day hard at work makes us think that even this area was all part of a master plan to create the most relaxing, secluded space on the Corn Islands. This goal would be an undeniable accomplishment, judging by our sloth-like behavior on our Corn Island vacation. This is all a carefully constructed illusion, indeed, as there is a $10 a night cheapy just next door (no particular name, these cabins are very basic, but the ‘hotel’ also comes with a kitchen, great for saving money on the overpriced island.)

The hotel beach restaurant, charmingly named the ‘Turning Turtle’, is also right out front, with five tables and a games corner. The food left much to be desired (See Room for Improvement below), but Jack Johnson and Bob Marley wafting softly from the speakers  kept alive the perfect beach feeling at Little Corn Beach and Bungalow. Admittedly, breakfast was a treat each morning. Meals start at US$3.50 and are all under US$6. Creative dishes include the ‘Island Benedict’ or ‘Caribbean French Toast’, plus a fairly authentic “Nica”, or local Nicaraguan, breakfast. There is also bottomless coffee for US$1.50 during breakfast.

Stand Out Features

The beach front hammocks

The hammock area at LCBB sits within a well-maintained garden with perfect beach views is ridiculously relaxing. The on-site bar and restaurant makes it too easy to grab  a bite or have a drink in the hammocks as well.

The games corner

The beach front restaurant has a little games corner with couches for those bad weather days, as well as in the evenings, when the secluded beach area offers nothing more than a walk on the beach instead.

Snorkeling equipment for rent

LCBB’s prices are in dollars rather than the local cordobas, making drinks, dinner and snacks very overpriced. One great deal at LCBB is the daily snorkeling equipment rental, available for $5 for 24 hours. Go on a tour, possibly arranged by the hotel, rather than snorkeling alone near the shore. You will see much more this way for only $10, as the water near land is dark and not meant for snorkeling.

Room for improvement:

Vegetarian food options

For all it’s quirkiness and creative name choices, this supposedly eco-friendly hotel does not spread its passion to animals or air miles. There are next to no veggie-friendly meals, and the four-course meal for dinner each night (around $13, not cheap by Nicaraguan standards) just leaves out the meat portion of the main dish (leaving rice, veggies and a little salad) without reducing the price or offering a vegetarian main dish.

The menu is a meat-heavy American menu compared to its remote island location, and while some of the fish is locally sourced, the large list of meat options for lunch and dinner must need to be flown in (the cake, on the other hand, is deliciously and locally handmade). Also, the four-course dinner happens every night, and no other smaller or a la carte options are available, so diners are forced to eat the whole dinner or walk in the dark to another restaruant. Safety isn’t an issue on this tiny island, but it would be more comfortable to be able to order off the lunch menu or maybe just a side of fries with a beer.

Lack of Flexbility

It’s that lack of flexibility that frustrated us the most during our stay. Although they seem to go above and beyond for guests, Kristine and Scott’s adherence to ‘company policy’ came at a terrible time for us. We had been out on a snorkeling adventure since 1pm, and when we returned at 330 the kitchen was closed (it is closed daily between 3-5).  This was a heavy hour of swimming and the windy weather had made the water terribly rough. Seasick and soggy with salt-water, we wanted nothing more than a Cuban grilled cheese before falling into bed for the afternoon. We asked both Scott and Kristine (who organized the tour for us and knew that going out snorkeling was not on our previous itinerary) and although staff was in the kitchen, neither would put an order of food in for us at that time. We were reduced to a slice of cake and fries, not exactly what we needed after what truly was a difficult day at sea.

The bunkhouse

We could only reserve a spot in the bunkhouse for two of our nights, as LCBB is really that popular. The bunkhouse is the ‘budget’ accommodation option at $35-$40. A normal-sized cabin is split in two, and we slept on bunkbeds. The building quality was much worse than the beautiful cabins out front,  the bathroom was so see-through so guests can hear and smell the other guests doing their business. The walls were also so thin you can hear even the slightest bit of ‘business’ going on in the bedroom, too.  We felt immense relief once we moved into our own little Gilligan cabin.

Overall

Little Corn Beach & Bungalow is an excellent Caribbean getaway for any budget traveler who is ready for a relaxing splurge, for families who need a safe place to let their kids run around while relaxing with a book in a hammock, or as a couple looking for a romantic beach-getaway in an off-the-beaten-path destination. LCBB is probably the best spot to enjoy is the perfect Robinson Crusoe island vacation – as long as you are not a vegetarian, not on a strict budget and do not require very personalized attention.

Location: On the South East side of the island, follow the cross-island path through the jungle or get picked up from the ferry boat

Price: Standard cabin with en-suite bathroom US$64 low season/ $74 high season, deluxe cabin with kitchen US$85/$94, bunk bed with shared bathroom US$17.50/$20 per person

LGBT Friendly: not especially, this is a family-oriented hotel and we are pretty sure they thought we were ‘friends’.

Amenities: Wi-fi, games  & books, beach, on-site restaurant, hammocks

Digital Nomad Friendly: The Wi-Fi here is satellite and works great, but only from 2pm due to electricity rationing.

Website: http://www.littlecornbb.com/

If you found this post useful, check out the rest of our Hotel Tip of the Week series.

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The day we boarded down a volcano

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We certainly never thought we would end up going volcano boarding when we arrived in Leon. We don’t ski, snowboard or surf – plus we had never heard of this phenomenon until we asked Ayngelina from Bacon is Magic, who had spent a few weeks there in summer 2010, for must-do activities when we get to town.  She immediately replied with a simple, “Volcano Boarding.” So after lazy days of lots of eating and a few more of flat out working, we decided it was time for this must-do-in-Leon adventure.

Cerro NegroResearching the various tour agencies revealed very different options. Rather than booking the trip through the Bigfoot Hostel, the more popular choice, we opted for Quetzaltrekkers. Not only do they give you two runs down the volcano for the same price as one with Bigfoot, but they are also a non-profit organization who puts the proceeds toward helping street kids in Nicaragua. Quetzaltrekkers has smaller groups, so that instead of climbing with 20 people, just two boys and five other girls would take part in this event with us. Smaller groups, helping kids AND getting a 2 for 1 deal – going with Quetzaltrekkers seemed a no-brainer.

Little did we know that one run down would be more than enough when we started our trip in the back of a pick-up truck that morning. We headed straight toward the chain of volcanoes around Leon, specifically Cerro Negro, or “black hill’. The other volcanoes were steeper and much larger, but this strange all-black mega hill, devoid of all plant life, certainly stirred up the first sense of reality that we were going to climb up a volcano and then ‘snow’board all the way down.Cerro Negro rocks

Upon arrival we were handed a sack with some oh-so-sexy overalls to protect our clothes, even sexier plastic glasses, workman gloves, a big bottle of water, plus the board itself. First lesson learned: These clunky wooden boards are not light! Instead of a light fiberglass snowboard, we were about to climb an all-black, lava-filled volcano in 90F heat with a wooden board that could best be compared to a toboggan.The hour of the ascent seemed more like five.

The two guys in the group were just doing this for fun before their two-day mountain trek, so they had no problems whizzing right up, but the other girls had as hard of a time as we did and we all were thankful when we finally reached the top and slipped into our moon suits.

dani & jess volcano boarding leonNow even hotter with overalls on, we inched toward the steep side of the volcano, and peeked over the edge while our sprightly Canadian guide explained how not to fall to avoid breaking bones or getting wounded. He also made clear that no-one stands up on the way down, despite all posters in town showing a sporty snowboarder girl mastering the volcano this way. Relieved at this, we lined up to go down, the bravest in the group going first of course.

Volcano Boarders
“You want a push?” our guide asked in all seriousness. After nervous laughter and a ‘no thanks’, the first guy pushed off down the volcano, then the next, and the next. We were getting hotter and hotter in our space suits and couldn’t very well stay here all day, so finally it was time for us to go down.

After all the build-up, the actual ride was anti-climactic. At times I sped nearly out of control down the steep hill, but the lava rocks were actually much softer than expected, which caused my board to sink deep into them, inevitably slowing the board down. At one point I was practically running, digging my heels in trying to go faster. With my protective gear, my suit, and the massive mound of lava, the entire experience felt like being on a different planet entirely.  Joining the others at the bottom, there was no cheering, mostly shoulder shrugging.

Volcano boarders from bottom
“So, that was it?” remarked one of the girls sarcastically as we rushed to get out of our space suits.

“Guess so,” I said, hoping maybe no one would want to do this whole thing again. Dani sped down much faster than I did, and was actually looking forward to another chance, which she would get after we climbed back up the black hill, now under the unforgiving midday sun.

We made it up the loose lava gravel, again, with our boards, again, put on the suits, again, and the gloves and glasses, again. This time, however, when asked if we wanted a push, I believe each and every one us answered with a determined, ‘Yes, please’!
Cerro Negro rocks1I worked out a new method and went much faster the second time. Dani, on the other hand, went slower the second time, an unrewarding end to the arduous second climb. Some of the girls decided to leave the boards behind entirely and run at full speed down the volcano which seemed like a really fun alternative.

We have to say that our volcano boarding experience was not as spectacular as it could have been. Bigfoot at least makes a real occasion out of it: your speed is clocked by a radar gun at the bottom, and the boards go much faster. A friend of ours hit 52mph an hour, and the record is about 80 mph! None of us had any battle wounds to show, while the Bigfooters boasted scrapes and scars even days later. Fellow travel blogger Wandering Earl proudly showed his wounds here. Not that we wanted to get hurt….right?

Cerro Negro Boards

Would we recommend volcano boarding?

Definitely! Even though it sounds more amazing than it actually is – not many people can say that they ever boarded down a volcano! The climb itself is worth the trip (once) for the views over the other volcanoes, even though it was not easy to hike up through volcanic rocks and ash with the board.

Cerro Negro HikeBigfoot vs. Quetzaltrekkers

When deciding who to book the tour with you have to consider what you would like to get out of the hike – if you’re in for the fun of speeding down a volcano and mingling with other travelers afterwards, Bigfoot is the clear winner. However, if you would like to support a non-profit organization and go down (and up) twice, Quetzaltrekkers is the better fit. There is another tour operator who offers volcano boarding, TierraTours, but from what we’ve seen, their boards are not very good. Their group boarded down Cerro Negro after us and the some people got stuck not even halfway down.

Quetzaltrekkers

  • Profit goes to help street kids
  • 2 runs down (you can opt to run down the 2nd time) for the price of one
  • Water included
  • Lunch included
  • Snacks included between the two runs
  • Small groups
  • Price: $30.00

Address: 1 1/2 blocks east of Iglesia la Recolección, (in front of Union Fenosa) Email them here for more information or visit their website.

BigFoot

  • Faster boards
  • Laser speed gun to turn it into a competition for the fastest boarder
  • 2 free mojitos at Bigfoot hostel after the volcano boarding
  • Larger groups
  • More serious wounds
  • Price: $28.00

Address: Av. Santiago Arguello between Ca. NE and 2a Ca. NE mail Bigfoot here for more information or visit the website.

Click here to read Ayngelina’s volcano boarding experience with BigFoot (including a cool video!)

Cerro Negro Volcano Crater

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Leon’s no gem – that’s what we love about it

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After nearly two weeks in Leon, we finally decided to undertake the curious sport of Volcano Boarding (more on that tomorrow), one of the most popular tourist activities in town,which involves hiking up a volcano and then boarding down. We did this twice in a row in sweltering heat, and we returned to our hotel covered in black lava dust from head to toe, with rocks in every crevice including our teeth. We could hardly wait for a cold shower at the Colibri Hostel, but then the manager explained that the water had been cut, and no one knew how long it would last.

By this time, we had become used to rolling with the punches in Leon, so we accepted our dirty fate dealt out by a city which quickly became our favorite place in Nicaragua. Don’t take this to mean that Leon is some sort of paradise. On the contrary, the city is far from perfect.

For starters, Leon is hot, temperatures waver between 90-95F during the summer months. To make matters worse, the city, like much of Nicaragua, is subject to frequent power and water cuts. The government calls it ‘rationing’ but gives no advance warning, and the cuts tend to strike at very inconvenient times.

This particular cut lasted 24 hours and required us to walk around completely crusty, sweaty and stinky, stewing in our lava-encrusted filth, even during breakfast the next morning at our favorite morning spot, El Desayunzo, which was open for business despite having no water. The people of Leon don’t let much get them down, certainly not a few hours without water. Female guests at the restaurant had their hair pulled back into greasy ponytails similar to ours and we all got on with the day.

From the table at the restaurant, we would often watch the traffic go by – the modern roar of motorcycles and screeching brakes of the buses somehow mix musically with the galloping of the frequent horse-carts passing by.

Leon has this feeling of being stuck in a time warp. Families rock away the early evening in their rocking chairs, young couples cuddle up out on front stoops, and boys play basketball under the large-scale murals depicting the Sandinista revolution and its leaders. It was at a travel agency here in Leon that we were issued handwritten plane tickets to the Corn Islands, as though it was the mid-seventies and there might be a smoking section on the plane.

With its large student population, Leon is equally a fairly modern city. You can catch a Hollywood blockbuster at the movie theater, buy any number of international goods at the brightly-lit supermarkets and you might actually want to shop at the stores selling fashionable clothes and shoes. The difference with Leon is that the city has struck a perfect balance of tradition and modernity. For example for all of the delicious, even trendy, bars and restaurants you’ll find in Leon, there is not an American food chain in sight – quite a feat for a city with nearly 200,000 residents.  Their politics, principles and passion have managed to keep McDonald’s et al away  (though the supermarket La Union is a discreet Walmart-owned company).

We would also often grab a coffee and chocolate croissant at Pan y Paz, and spend the morning reading the national newspaper – which still prints a poetry section nearly every day. Poetry plays a large role in the country’s identity, and the nation’s greatest poet, Ruben Dario, called Leon home. His house has been converted into a significant museum.

In fact, this idealistic, intellectual city is teeming with museums, and while they can not content with the Louvre, Smithsonian or El Prado, the stories each one tells are clearly intended to educate the public rather than just to rake in the tourist dollars. This is how Leon feels in general – the city runs for its people, not for the tourists.

This is a stark contrast to Granada, Nicaragua’s supposed tourism star and showcase city. Granada has fallen into the same trap as several Central American spots which cater so intensely to tourists that they erase the genuine colonial culture that made the city worth preserving and showcasing in the first place. Granada’s city center is populated by the only people who can afford the rent – the very temporary hotel residents from the US and Europe. Tourists fill the restaurants, not locals, and beggars arrive in droves each afternoon to pick up any scraps of coins or food the people will give. They live just beyond the city’s fresh coat of paint, with unpaved roads and makeshift housing well hidden from the well-distracted tourist.

Leon is the polar opposite. People live here in homes, not houses. You can eat happily in restaurants without street vendors and beggars looking for donations. The city encompasses the passion, politics and poetry which drive the heartbeat of the nation.  As a visitor you are not ‘catered to’. Whether you visit for a day, a week or longer, you must take the city as it is – water rationing, hot weather and all.

That is not to say that there is nothing for tourists to do in Leon. There are plenty of tourist activities – and original ones at that: the volcano boarding, cooking at an indigenous family’s house, even attending a cock fight, if that’s your thing. Stalls on the main plaza sell tourist trinkets and there are hopping hostels like ViaVia and Bigfoot in addition to a few finer hotels throughout town. Leon is the perfect place to hang back for a few days to take the city in, enjoy good food and see what it means to be Nicaraguan.

Our suggestions on what to do in Leon

Enjoy the views
Had a taxi driver not told us about the roof of Leon’s cathedral, we would have never known you can climb up. The cathedral is Central America’s biggest, and $2 gets you up to the roof to see some amazing views of the city and the dynamic volcano chain surrounding it.

Shop!
Leon is absolutely fantastic for clothes shopping – so if you are in need of a few new outfits, Leon is a great place for super cheap, quality clothes. There are a ton of clothes stores throughout the town and the clothes do not only fit ‘Latin shapes’ but the sizes are suitable for other body types too.

Go to the movies
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eon has a fabulous, modern movie theater right in the center of the town, within walking distance of all the hostels. The actual theatre size is not huge, but the screens are decent and movies are in English with Spanish subtitles, so you don’t necessarily need to speak Spanish. It’s hard to beat the prices: $2 for a movie on Mondays and Wednesdays, popcorn & a soft drink will cost you another $2.

Tour the churches
The town has more than a dozen colonial churches, most of which are beautifully restored and within walking distance of each other. Our personal favorites are La Recoleccion and El Calvario.

Visit the museums
Being a culturally aware city with many influential artists, Leon is home to various museums that are worth a visit. The ‘Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones’, located in a former prison, displays life-size traditional folk heroes of Leon as well as depicting the cruel torture methods used here.
($1, 4a Calle SE / Avenida Central).

Art lovers should pay the Fundacion Ortiz a visit, which showcases a wide selection of Nicaraguan, Latin American and European art.
($1, Calle Ruben Dario / 3a Avenida Norte).

Anyone interested in literature should check out the house of Nicaragua’s number 1 poet Ruben Dario which has been turned into a museum and archive of his work. (Calle Ruben Dario, free entry). Another great poet’s house is just up the road – the Museo Alfonso Cortes ($1).Discover new fruits on the market
Leon’s central market is one of the cleanest we have come across in Central America and it is fun to walk around, discover new fruit and veg, such as Zapote or Caimito, taste the popular corn drink ‘Chicha’, or dabble in rather dubious culinary delights like fresh (as in still alive) iguanas. Since the market has such a variety of fruits and vegetables, we would advise staying somewhere with a kitchen, in order to sample the market’s offerings.

Hike volcanoes
Leon is close to a chain of 7 volcanoes, most of which can be climbed. Quetzaltrekkers and other tour operators offer volcano hikes (including overnight hikes) or volcano boarding for the more adventurous climbers.

Take a cooking class
Learn how to make a typical Nicaraguan dish. In our post, How to cook an Old Indian, we describe the experience of a cooking course in Leon – from going to the market where you shop the ingredients and stopping by the tortilla makers to try to make your own to and cooking with a Nicaraguan lady who welcomes you with open arms into her home. It is a truly remarkable experience.

Our suggestions on where to eat in Leon

Leon has loads of international eateries and cheap Nicaraguan joints in town, and unlike in Granada, the restaurants in Leon do not add 15% sales tax to your bill.

El Desayunazo
El Desayunazo is easily our favorite breakfast place in all of Central America. A large selection of Nicaraguan and American breakfasts, bottomless coffee, friendly service (who explain Nicaraguan dishes and drinks with a smile), CNN en espanol on a flat screen and free wi-fi – what more can you ask for? The food is excellent and El Desayunazo is stuffed with locals and tourists alike, so it’s best to get there early, as they are only open til noon.
(3a Calle NE, at the corner of 2a Avenida NO)

BarBaro
BarBaro is a relatively new restaurant and bar which gets packed on the weekend thanks to a huge cocktail menu and creative drinks for $2 – $4, or beer for less. The dinners didn’t impress us as much as the cocktails, but we went back for breakfast and didn’t regret it. BarBaro also has free wi-fi.
(1a Calle SE, at the corner of 2a Avenida SO)

Pan Y Paz
If you fancy a Brie baguette or a chocolate croissant, head to Pan Y Paz! This little French bakery has the most affordable baguettes and French sweets we’ve seen in Central America. The organic coffee is good and there is a daily changing selection of fresh fruit juices for less than $0.70. The Brie baguette ($2.50) is perfect on whole wheat or white baguettes, while the chocolate and almond croissants for less than $1 are to die for! (1a Calle NE, at the corner of 3a Avenide SE)

Earth Café
This little vegetarian café is connected to the Bigfoot Hostel. The menu is basic and cheap: You can choose between pasta and sandwiches, and Wednesdays is pizza night where they offer a good pizza & beer deal.

Cocinarte
Cocinarte is a little walk away from the town center, but if you are looking for decent international vegetarian cuisine, you should make your way there. They have Indian or Thai Curry, Falafel, and heaping plates of salad and pasta. The food is organic and pricier than other restaurants in Leon. (4a Calle SE, corner of 4a Avenida NO)

Our suggestions on where to stay in Leon

Hostel Colibri
Colibri
is not a party hostel, but if you are looking for a quiet space with clean rooms, a big kitchen and a shaded courtyard where you can swing in a hammock, this is a fantastic little hostel. You can read our detailed review here. (1a Avenida NO, 50 meters north of the church La Recoleccion. Dorms $7, double rooms $15)

ViaVia
The ViaVia hostel has a busy restaurant and bar in the front, which means it can get loud in the rooms in the front, however, most of the rooms are set around a second colonial backyard in the back, far away from the noises of the bar. (2 blocks East and then 2 blocks North from Parque Central, opposite BigFoot hostel; dorms $6, double rooms $15)leon hostelsBigfoot Hostel
Across the street from Via Via is Bigfoot, Leon’s ultimate party hostel, with an always busy bar. The dorms are not as nice as in ViaVia, but it has a basic kitchen, is close to the big ‘La Union’ supermarket, and also has a great courtyard with hammocks. There’s also a pool, but it wasn’t in use at the time we were there. (2 blocks East and then 2 blocks North from Parque Central, opposite ViaVia hostel; dorms $6, double rooms $15)

Have you been to Leon? What are your suggestions for what to see and do in Leon? Have you ever fallen in love with a city that others might not consider a gem? We’d love to hear your stories and suggestions!

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Village life on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua – A photo essay

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Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua is the largest fresh-water island in the world. The name Ometepe means ‘two mountains’ and refers to the two impressive volcanoes that are the island’s characteristic feature. The Maderas volcano is on the right, Concepcion volcano on the left in the image below.

Volcanoes from water Ometepe NicaraguaThe island has been inhabited for thousands of years, first by the Nahuatl, and today by the local ‘Ometepinos’. These locals remained secluded from the rest of Nicaragua and the country’s conflicts throughout the years. Residents here were self-sufficient thanks to the extremely fertile volcanic soil which allowed them to live entirely off the land.

This has radically changed in the last decade. Initially travelers began arriving due to their attraction to the island’s supposed magic or mystique. Now Ometepe has become a main stop on the Nicaraguan tourist trail.  Jess visited the island in 2000 and again in 2011, and was stunned at difference – from the number of hotels and organized tourist activities to the way of life in the island’s larger towns, not to mention the existence of a well-paved road! However, the further away from the main ferry terminals you go, the more villages you find where people still go on with their lives as they always have.

Traditional life on Ometepe

Village Road with Pigs Ometepe NicaraguaThe village of Balgue on the southeastern part of Ometepe is the last stop for the bus, as it sits at the end of an unpaved, but still  passable road (beyond this, the road becomes more of a path which leads around to an area with several of the island’s petroglyphs). This is a far cry from the new, smooth asphalt road which connects the main ferry port of Moyogalpa with villages on the way to Santo Domingo, a developed, tourist-friendly part of Ometepe with quality hotels and restaurants.

From Santo Domingo, the road turns into a rocky mess which we wouldn’t have wanted to drive ourselves. It leads to Balgue, a village in the shadow of Maderas volcano where daily life,  not focused on the tourism trade, goes on as it always has.

Laundry on Ometepe NicaraguaIn rural parts of Ometepe, you’ll still see laundry being done on the shores of the stream – a common meeting place for the women of the village.

Most of the houses are still made of wood, in the traditional way, although more and more people have started using concrete to build sturdier homes.

The Animals of Ometepe

Pigs on Ometepe NicaraguaInstead of cats and dogs, most villagers here, like in many parts of rural Central America, have cows, chickens and pigs in the yard.

Carrier Horse Ometepe NicaraguaThe majority of the villagers here do not own cars, and use oxes and horses to work the fields or transport wood and other materials. Sometimes the animals seem to walk entirely alone down to the village, like this horse we saw, packed down and plodding along the trail while his owner hung far back chatting to people as they passed by.

Pet Monkey Ometepe NicaraguaThree kinds of monkeys – spider monkeys, howler monkeys and capuchin monkeys –  live on the island, so you will definitely see them swinging through the trees. You won’t need an alarm clock, as the howler monkeys will wake you up first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, some locals – though now a small number – keep monkeys as pets. This capuchin in Balgue was kept on a chain and seemed miserable.

Watch out! If you are not careful, you might even get trampled by the cattle…

Cattle Ometepe Nicaragua…who use the streets more than the few buses and cars on this part of the island, which lies in the shadow of Maderas volcano.

The Volcanoes

The Maderas volcano is the popular choice amongst visitors to climb (though the eight-hour trek partially knee-deep in mud did not interest us in the least). The main reason why the Concepcion volcano (below), which rises so majestically out of the western part of the island,  is a less popular climb has to do with the fact that Concepcion is still very much an active volcano. Ometepe saw the volcano’s last severe eruption in 2010.

Concepcion Volcano Ometepe NicaraguaDespite the government’s warnings for locals to leave the island, only very few followed the order and evacuated. The rest remained on the island, and despite over 34 eruptions within 24 hours, a few of which shot ash over 10,000ft  (3,000m) in the air, no one was hurt.

Ruta de Evacuacion Ometepe Nicaragua

The future

We hope that the villagers on Ometepe continue to have that hard-as-nails mentality to stand up against future eruptions, both of Concepcion volcano as well as the eruption of tourism that is dramatically altering the essence of Ometepe Island.

Have you been to Ometepe? Did you take away similar impressions or was Ometepe a different experience for you? Where have you felt the bittersweet effects of tourism?

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