Sledding at top speed down a live volcano is not something I would ever choose to do on vacation. But we were traveling in Nicaragua with our teenage kids, and volcano sledding was their No. 1 choice of excursions.
As I flew down the steep pebbly face of the black volcano astride a rustic wooden sled, I plastered a grin on my face and tried to focus my jittery mind on being brave rather than terrified so my children wouldn’t think I was a wimp. It probably wasn’t the best time to forget our guide’s instructions on how to brake.
The ensuing high-speed wipeout and bloody abrasions on my face and leg earned me the nickname “Gnarly Mom” from our teens for the rest of the Nicaraguan adventure — so, of course, it was worth it.
Ascending and sliding down Cerro Negro, an active volcano near Leon, was the most memorable of many novel experiences that we had when my husband, Andrew, 17-year-old Celia, 19-year-old Solomon and I traveled to Nicaragua for a week in December. We chose Nicaragua because the three of us enjoy practicing our Spanish (and watching Andrew butcher the language with good-natured enthusiasm). We also sought a mix of outdoor and cultural adventures similar to our Costa Rica trip a few years back.
Even the early morning drive to the volcano was fascinating. Most Nicaraguans in the countryside grow and raise their own food and have chickens, pigs, cows, (bony) dogs, and horses. Besides the animals, we shared the road with children pulling wagons full of sticks, whole families riding motorcycles (three people – often including a baby – on one bike isn’t uncommon) and carts pulled by beefy oxen.
We knew we were in for the kind of adventure our food-and-nature-loving family favors when, during the 90-minute drive from Managua to Leon, we pulled over twice to order street food such as fried cheese, plantain chips and quesillos, and once more for a photograph on the shores of Lake Managua with the famed Momotombo volcano in the background.
The Central American country is becoming a hot destination for North American and European travelers for good reasons, and the country is working diligently to embrace and entertain adventurers. While many Americans still associate the country with revolution and civil war, today’s Nicaragua shows few traces of the violent conflicts that ended 27 years ago. The country is peaceful and the agricultural and tourist economy are flourishing.
With a college sophomore and a high school senior, we are keenly aware that we likely have few opportunities left to explore the world together. Nicaragua, a country in transition, turned out to be a perfect spot to connect with each other as our family moves toward an empty nest.
We stayed in three places during our eight-day trip: charming boutique hotels in the colonial cities of Leon and Granada, and thatched bungalows nestled into the cliffs at Morgan’s Rock, a small eco-resort near the Pacific beach town of San Juan del Sur. Each served as comfortable, colorful bases for our families’ daily explorations.
Leave your stilettos at home. Nicaragua is a casual country – we found no occasion to dress up – and the cities, while pedestrian-friendly (even for stray horses and donkeys) have uneven sidewalks and gaping holes in the pavement (a.k.a. ankle breakers). Using a wheelchair or a walker would be a huge physical challenge. Even pushing a stroller would be tricky.
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Leon is a university town, the second-largest city in Nicaragua. It is nicknamed the “City of Poets” and is the cultural hub of Nicaragua. Like most colonial towns in Latin America, Leon is built around a large central square lined with a cathedral, cafes, restaurants (the crowd favorite is El Sesteo, right on the square), important civic buildings and hotels.
In Leon and Granada, the squares were bustling with live music, food, cheerful families, artisan marketplaces and street performers. The bustling food markets are adjacent to the squares, and although they are pungent and intriguing with giant papayas, piles of plantains and vats of pickled chiles, they lack the sensory charm of markets in France and Turkey.
We explored the colorful city on foot from lovely Hotel El Convento, where the beautiful, peaceful interior courtyard is populated with birds bathing in the center fountain in the morning and bats darting around the banana trees in the evening. Many families update the colors of their houses during the holidays every year, so the doors and walls along the streets of Leon are a delightful mix of greens, blues, pinks and yellows.
Given the tropical climate, many restaurants and cafes operate in open air and have inviting gardens and hammocks where guests can relax during the wait for food and drinks – which, especially in Leon, could be quite lengthy. While waiting for lunch one afternoon at a charming cafe called Las Dos Fridas, I swung gently in a hammock to quell my hunger-induced irritation at the delay. But the dishes, once served, were prepared with such care, and the setting was so relaxing, that I felt silly for importing my U.S.-style impatience.
From Leon we also took a half-day kayak trip to the Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve. Paddling through the estuary, we spotted dozens of species of exotic (to us) birds such as great blue herons and snowy egrets nestling among the mangrove forest. The highlight of the outing was cradling newly hatched olive ridley sea turtles that were being protected by naturalists post-hatching and would be released into the sea that evening to ensure their best chance of survival.
After a well-earned, delightful lunch of fresh fish at a funky hostel on the beach, we stopped in the small village of San Jacinto, known for its boiling volcanic mud pits, which serve as breathing holes for the nearby volcanoes. The village children hawk the mud (and rustic crafts made from it) to tourists, swearing that they treat everything from acne to insect bites.
After walking through the mud fields, we had a tortilla-making tutorial from a woman who supports her daughter and herself by making the tortillas for families in the village. We cooked the fresh tortillas on a hot comal (cast iron grill over an open fire), then she treated us to a snack of fresh cheese and freshly pressed melon juice, which we enjoyed with our tasty, if misshapen, creations.
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We drove two hours south for our two-night stay at Hotel Colonial in Granada. The city sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, a massive freshwater lake filled with nearly 400 small islands, including some that boast active volcanoes.
Granada feels more international, with tourists from all over the world, more shopping options, more aggressive vendors in the central square, more upscale hotels, bars and a wider variety of restaurants – including Irish pubs, sushi bars, and Starbucks-style coffee shops where you can get Nicaraguan grown coffee in a to-go cup. (We opted to sit and savor ours as the Nicaraguans do.) But even in Granada, stray horses and skinny dogs share the restaurant strip with wobbly travelers who have imbibed too many Macuás (rum-based fruity cocktails).
Our family took a motorboat ride to explore some of the isletas on Lake Nicaragua. While the highlight was the great variety of migrating and nesting birds, we were also intrigued by the elaborate mansions on some of the islands and momentarily tempted by the “en venta” (for sale) signs on a few. Some of the islands have restaurants or night clubs; one is an abandoned fort erected to protect Granada from invaders.
Like cruising in a gondola in Venice, clopping through the cobblestone streets of Granada in a horse-drawn carriage is on the agenda of every tourist and tour guide. It’s a charming way to get a better feel for the city and its landmarks, including its historic cemetery. But the horse lover in me couldn’t help feeling sorry for the skinny nags and the pace they had to keep in the Nicaraguan heat.
The four of us got a kick out of the theatrical and informative hands-on chocolate workshop at the quirky ChocoMuseo. Our animated guide Ishmael walked us through chocolate production from seeing the cacao beans growing in pods on demonstration trees in the center courtyard of the “museo,” to roasting, pounding and grinding the beans by hand to a cocoa paste, to tasting cacao the way it was eaten by the Mayans and Incans (bitter!), to ultimately blending it with cocoa butter and designing our own chocolate bars with dried fruit, nuts, coarse salt or whatever mix-ins we preferred. Before we could walk off our chocolate highs, Ishmael led us in downing shots of chocolate-flavored liquor while we chanted “Ariba, Abajo, Al Centro, Adentro!” (Up, down, to the middle, inside!)
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We indulged our last three nights at Morgan’s Rock, the stunning eco-resort. That part of the country is known for its beach towns, where expat surfers ride waves and families from all over Nicaragua come to vacation. At Morgan’s Rock, smiling staff members greeted us with fresh juice cocktails (rum was optional) and led us past the stunning pool down to the private cove dotted with alluring cabanas, hammocks, an open-air spa and yoga studio, and a beach bar. It felt like the howler monkeys might drop in at any moment for a banana smoothie.
We crossed the 50-yard-long suspension bridge to our bungalow nestled on a cliff over the ocean, one of only 15 rooms at Morgan’s Rock. I was delighted when Andrew cautioned me with words I never hear at home: “Watch out for the monkey poop” on the steps to our room. The beautifully designed split-level cabanas sleep up to five people and have large screens to keep the bugs out, large fans to keep the air circulating, a rocking daybed on the balcony where we could relax and listen to the sounds of the waves, and outdoor and indoor showers. The place was a tropical paradise. Three days seemed too short.
Because Morgan’s Rock is nestled in a cove, the water is calm and warm(ish) enough even for skittish ocean swimmers. Across the sand is an estuary lined with the stones perfect for skipping, which Andrew and Solomon did for hours. The resort also has kayaks, surfboards, boogie boards and bicycles for guest use, and offers a range of activities from horseback riding to fishing to surfing lessons. However, I primarily used the time to relax, read and regain a sense of inner peace after a hectic autumn. Following a late afternoon massage, I drifted to sleep on the massage table to the sounds of the sea and awoke surrounded by candles whose flames were dancing in the soft breeze.
We woke up early one morning to take a breakfast excursion to Morgan Rock’s farm. As we bounced along in the open-air jeep, our guide pointed out monkeys and a sloth (we steered around an iguana) and the shrimp and tree farms.
At the farm, we milked a cow (taking care not to pull on the teat reserved for her calf) and gathered still-warm eggs for breakfast. One of the cooks from the resort, Xiomara, scrambled the eggs and made the most magnificent salsa and gallo pinto (rice and beans). She was delightful and couldn’t stop giggling about Andrew’s poor tortilla-shaping skills. Unlike many of the other animals we saw, the flocks and herds at Morgan’s Rock looked healthy, well-kept and well-fed.
On New Year’s Eve, after a sumptuous buffet on the beach, we drank champagne and Macuás and danced to live local music with the other guests and with the children and grandchildren of the lodge owners, who have a house just down the beach from the resort and who we had met walking on the shore our first day.
To usher out the year and welcome a new one, Nicaraguans stuff a life-size puppet of an old man with firecrackers and set him ablaze at midnight. With major life changes on the horizon for our family in 2017, the dazzling spectacle seemed appropriate to launch us into the new year.
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Goldfarb’s website is AvivaGoldfarb.com; find her on Twitter at @AvivaGoldfarb.
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If you go
Where to stay
Hotel El Convento
Next to San Francisco Church
The 31-room boutique hotel, located two blocks from Leon’s central square, was built in the traditional Spanish colonial style on the site of a historic convent. Rooms surround a colorful garden and fountain. Rooms from $72, deluxe breakfast included.
Hotel El Colonial
Calle La Libertad, steps from the central square
Located just steps from the central square, it’s easy to admire the property’s colorfully painted tile and blooming flowers. It features 36 comfortable rooms that surround two small pools and a bar. Have breakfast downstairs in the kitchen or by the pool for $4. Transfers from the airport to the hotel are available for a fee. Double rooms from $98.
Playa Ocotal, San Juan del Sur, Rivas
Stay in one of the hotel’s secluded ocean-view bungalows overlooking the beach. Site activities include visiting a working dairy farm and shrimp farm, deep-sea fishing, hiking, mountain biking, yoga, a spa on the beach and relaxation in one of the beachfront cabanas. All activities and meals are provided. Double rooms from $203 a night, or $406 a night with three meals per person.
Where to eat
Restaurante El Sesteo
Central Street Rubén Darío, in front of Central Park.
The ideal spot for people-watching on the main square. Offers a solid variety of traditional fare, good service and a great spot to sip a coffee, smoothie or beer, and take in the local night life. Entrees from $3.30.
Las Dos Fridas
A laid back, female-run cafe with cheap eats, as well as a small art gallery, gift shop, garden and hammock. Entrees for less than $5.
La Sirena Ave., behind Granada Cathedral
A restaurant known for its grilled steaks, whole fish and indulgent service. Lunch and dinner entrees from $8.
The Garden Cafe
Corner of Calle Libertad and Calle Cervantes
A relaxed, welcoming cafe with fresh and creative food. Served in a former colonial home with a social mission of supporting Nicaraguans through providing jobs and selling local crafts. Open breakfast, lunch and dinner. Entrees from $3.
What to do
Cerro Negro Volcano Sandboarding Tour
Various private tour companies in Leon can arrange a day trip.
Climb up a famous active, steep, black volcano while carrying large, wooden sand boards. After donning protective suits and getting a quick lesson at the top, sit atop the sled and slide down the face of the volcano at high speed. Tours from around $25.
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve
Arrange kayak or motorboat tours through tour companies or directly at hotels in Las Penitas.
The nature reserve features an estuary and mangrove forest with 106 species of wild birds and a remote nesting site for olive ridley sea turtles between the months of August and January. Located 25 minutes from Leon and accessible by bus or from Las Penitas.
Local hotels and beach camping also available. Eat lunch in the fishing village at one of the hotels for around $12.
San Jacinto Boiling Mud Pits
The mud pits provide breathing holes for nearby volcanoes, and the mud is said to have medicinal properties. Local children will be glad to show you around, and you’ll likely encounter wandering farm animals in the small village of San Jacinto. Admission: $2.
Las Isletas Boat Tour
Arrange a tour in advance or hire a boat at the harbor at the Las Isletas wharf.
Situated at the foot of Mombacho volcano, Las Isletas consists of nearly 400 small islands in Lake Nicaragua, that were formed by a volcanic eruption 20,000 years ago. Tour the islands by motorboat or kayak, and see exotic birds, lavish mansions and monkeys on Monkey Island. Motorboat rides from $20 a person.
Atravesada Street in front of Bancentro
Learn about the history of chocolate, from bean to bar, in this highly entertaining and hands-on chocolate workshop. Museum is in a disjointed mansion that also encompasses a hotel, spa, swimming pool (mind the aggressive, territorial ducks) and a legendary chocolate breakfast buffet. Open 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Workshop/tour, $21 for adults; $12 for kids.