Lake? Check. Volcano? Check. Granada, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua with a backdrop of looming volcanoes, immediately justified Nicaragua’s nickname of the ‘Land of lakes and volcanoes’. Add to that an archipelago, lava and rainforest hikes, a crater laguna and hot springs, and we’d found ourselves the perfect base to start exploring Nicaragua.
Doing most of the looming is Volcan Mombacho. It’s an impressive backdrop at the end of most streets, dormant, but with a few occasional wisps of smoke to keep people on their toes. There are trails to viewpoints at the top, and hot springs in the lower slopes for post-hike relaxation. Slightly further out of town, Volcan Masaya really delivers the volcanic goods though, with lava bubbling away – Lord of the Rings style – in the crater.
Sadly we know this not from experience, but from a video on our taxi driver’s phone. Our first encounter with Central American prices meant our day trip ambitions were quickly scaled back, and it was only after our trip to the Las Isletas archipelago, and on the way to Laguna de Apoyo crater lake, that we realised Masaya should have made the cut. Let’s be honest, bubbling lava is always going to beat a sedate boat ride.
So, a crater lake and an archipelago. Looking at options for getting to either, we found we were on a well-trodden path. A path well trodden by vacationing Americans with a lot of dollar to spend. Our hotel’s advice involved expensive tours ($40+ for each), or private taxis (around $30), tellingly, both quoted in USD rather than Cordobas. Unconvinced, we went in search of a Plan B.
Enter, Leo. We found Leo at his one-man agency (Leo’s Tours) on the main strip, La Calzada, that heads out towards the lake from the central square. A local Granadan with a passion for travel, the walls of his tiny office were full of glowing reviews from backpackers on budgets. He gave us great advice on getting to Laguna de Apoyo by public bus, as well as doing a $15 deal for a private 3 hour boat trip around Las Islettas plus rental of 2 bikes for the rest of the day.
The idea of a boat trip through hundreds of tiny islands made of solidified lava, formed when Mombacho erupted, seemed pretty cool, but in practice was a bit underwhelming. Rather than a national park set-up, almost all of the islets are privately owned by rich people who’ve bought their own slice of volcanic paradise, for about half as much as a 2 bed flat in London.
Our boat captain took us out from the mainland, first along some narrow waterways where we passed families sustained by fishing in the lake, and then into the main archipelago. One of the stops took us to ‘monkey island’, home to a group of spider monkeys brought there by a vet who owns a neighbouring island. We got close enough for the monkeys to join us on the boat for a quick circuit of their island. Other than a kingfisher perched in the trees, that was the extent of the wildlife. The view back across the lake to Granada, and of Mombacho in the distance was good, but the archipelago itself probably looks more impressive from aerial photos.
Although we were in Granada during the rainy season, the weather was predictable. Predictably dry in the daytime, predictably stormy at night, and predictably boiling all the time. Luckily, there are ways to escape the the midday heat. The mustard coloured, red-domed Catedral de Granada in the main square has an impressive painted ceiling, a beautiful tiled floor, and no entry fee. Iglesia de la Merced is also free to look around, but for $1 we could climb the bell tower. From here we had views all the way over the rooftops to the cathedral and the lake behind.
Breaking up the sea of terracotta roof tiles were pockets of green; trees and plants pushing out from small internal courtyards. Back on ground level, strolling through the multi-coloured streets of the old town we noticed these courtyards again, hidden beyond the grand wooden doorways. The shady courtyard at Garden Cafe was a great spot for lunch, plus it had hammocks. ChocoMuseo’s courtyard had their own micro plantation with a couple of cacoa trees each bearing cocoa pods. As well as a small, free exhibition on chocolate production in Nicaragua and the history of chocolate consumption around the world, there was an inviting-looking pool belonging to the adjoining hotel, a spa (chocolate facial anyone?) and adverts for an all-you-can-eat breakfast in their cafe. Rebecca’s first thought was carte blanche for an unlimited chocolate breakfast, but disappointingly it was, in fact, a normal breakfast plus a hot chocolate. Not a bad deal at $6, but not the chocoholic binge Rebecca had in mind.
The best way to cool down after a morning in the hot Nicaraguan sun? Jump into a volcanic crater lake. The cheapest way to get to Laguna de Apoyo is a combination of chicken bus (local bus costing 10 cordobas), then a 5km walk up to the crater. We took the bus, but negotiated a taxi for 150 cordobas to save us a boiling hot uphill trek. The lake is a huge circular pool of completely still water about 6km across, perfect for paddle boarding, kayaking, or just lazing on the floating wooden platforms. Getting in was easier said than done, though. Most paths down to the shore are owned by the hotels that sit on the lake’s edge. Our taxi dropped us outside Monkey Hut hostel, where we’d expected to be able to get to the lake for free. We did, in the end, but only once we’d smiled nicely, and promised not to sit on any of their chairs – the security guard was ready to charge us the $6 daily access fee just to use their loungers.
The chicken bus ride out of town was also fun. Most buses leaves from the market, just south of the town centre, which gave us an opportunity to see some of the less visited, more bustling residential streets, lined with stalls selling everything from live chickens to car parts. We knew we were in the right place, when we saw a busy square tightly packed with the familiar ex-American school buses, each with their destination scrawled graffiti-style in the front window. If there’s any doubt as to which bus to get in, there are men calling out the destinations and encouraging anyone willing into their bus, ready to leave when it’s full. This destination shouting turned out to be crucuial. Whilst all the buses for Masaya and Rivas leave from the market, the Managua bus (which goes past the laguna) actually leaves back near the main square. We backtracked and found our bus, and a nod from the driver was all the assurance we got that we’d be deposited at “entrada de laguna” en route.
We also got to try plenty of Nicaraguan food. To be honest, we thought Mexico may have set the bar too high, but actually ate really well. It’s true that the food is a bit less spicy than Mexico, but keep the salsa picante bottle close at hand, and it’s all good.
Most evenings we headed to La Calzada where we ate barbecued sausages at Grill House, and gallo pinto with chorizo and chanco con yucca at Comida Tipica y Mas. Here we bumped into Leo again who introduced us to the Granadan cocktail, Macua – made with Flor de Cana rum, orange juice, lemon juice, guava juice and sugar syrup. The main square has a stall on each corner selling only sodas and vigoron – a salad topped with pork scratchings (delicious for those of us partial to fried pig skin). Sitting at these stalls does mark you out as a prime target for street hawkers. Having fended off plenty of suggestions that we might want to buy some bracelets or sunglasses, or both, the game was up when one guy opened with: “Do you want to eat some cheese?“, pulling back the cover of his basket to reveal not only freshly made smoked cheese, but also little bags of homemade cookies. It was a done deal.
In search of other cheap eats, Cafetin El Volcan just around the corner from our hotel gave us another opportunity to eat the local cheese, this time in quesillos; tortillas filled with cheese, onions and sour cream. We found a good bakery towards the main square where we also discovered that a Fanta “en una bolsa” (decanted into a plastic bag, served with a straw) means a discount on the bottle price
A final visit to Leo secured us a discounted taxi ride to San Jorge where we’d take the boat to Ompetepe to get our volcano fix.