Nicaragua is one of the up-and-coming destinations in Central America and is a popular alternative to Guatemala. Although it has both a Caribbean and a Pacific coast, most of the tourism is based near the Pacific coast. The choice of activities is quite similar to the other places I’ve been to in Central America, with many volcano hikes of varying difficulty, volcano sand boarding, surfing, kayaking, and jungle treks. The vegetation along the Pacific coast is much drier and less jungly than the countries further north, and resembles the bushveld found in Southern Africa. It was also a lot hotter than the countries further north and it was a huge relief that most of the places I chose to stay at had swimming pools. Throughout Nicaragua I spent a lot of time with a nice group of people I’d met variously in El Salvador and on the bus to Nicaragua. In general Central America has been really easy to meet people and I was constantly bumping into people I’d met earlier throughout my trip.
My first stop in Nicaragua was Léon, a small colonial era town a few kilometres from the Pacific coast. Leon is initially a little bit of a disappointment when you first arrive as there is not a huge amount to see in the town itself and the colonial centre is not very well preserved. However it does grow on you a bit and there are a few nice restaurants and bars around to keep you entertained. Many of the hostels and hotels in Leon (and Granada) are in pretty colonial buildings with a small centre courtyard filled with trees and plants with the rooms surrounding the courtyard. They also often have funky paintings on the walls. The main activities here are volcano sand boarding, surfing at the nearby beaches and some trekking. At this stage of my trip I’ve been taking it fairly easy since I’ve already done similar things to what’s on offer in Nicaragua. A few of us did a day trip to the beach to an isolated hostel called the Surfing Turtle. There is a backpacker shuttle to the hostel but we decided to rather make our own way there, which consisted of a 20 minute walk to a bus stop near one of the small markets, a 30 minute bus ride to the coast, a 5 minute ride on a tiny boat and finally a 10 minute ride on a slightly scary horse cart. The beach and hostel are really chilled, and there’s not much to do except relax, swim in the fairly rough sea, attempt to surf and drink some beer, and it’s a nice break from Leon.
After a few days in Leon a few of us headed down the coast to San Juan del Sur, a backpacker beach town near the Costa Rica border. The beaches around here are much nicer than those around Leon and many backpackers choose to learn to surf here rather than in Leon. There is also a much wider range of hostels, bars and restaurants, but don’t expect to see many locals. However the main reason people come here is for the huge Sunday Funday pool party / pub crawl that is held every Sunday. The party starts at 12:00 and moves between 4 different venues, finally closing down at 03:00. It’s good fun although it is definitely aimed at the younger crowd. It’s also quite expensive at $30, but this does include a dodgy vest. The town slowly fills up with backpackers over the week, and then abruptly empties again on Monday or Tuesday.
Feeling a bit hungover after the party I headed to the most popular tourist spot in Nicaragua, Granada. Granada is the former colonial capital and has done a better job than Léon of preserving the historic centre. It sits on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, a massive fresh water volcanic lake. The buildings in the old part of town are painted in different colours and lots of work has been done to restore much of the centre. Most of the tourist restaurants and bars are found in and around a single street behind the cathedral. Although it is similar to Antigua in Guatemala, it is not nearly as touristy and it still feels like a proper functioning town. It’s possible to eat and drink at places in the centre where you are the only tourist. The usual activities are available, plus some kayaking or boat rides on the small islands on the edge of the lake, which I tried to do but the tour got cancelled at the last minute.
In the end I spent much less time in Nicaragua than what I was expecting. I think this is because it quite similar to some of the other countries such as Guatemala, and combined with the heat it meant that I wasn’t hugely enthusiastic about doing anything that involved sweating any more than necessary. I think it would have been different if I had come to Nicaragua first, as many people I’m met travelling up from there loved it. I still really enjoyed my time there, but in a different way to some of the other countries.
With only a week to go before I needed to be in Colombia to meet Anne, I wanted to go to Panama to try some scuba diving on the Pacific coast and to see the Panama Canal. I had the option of a 26 hour bus ride via Costa Rica or a 1.5 hour flight, and decided the extra cash for the flight was well worth it. I’d decided early on to leave Costa Rica out of my trip as it is much more expensive than other countries (pretty much USA levels) and it is deserving of at least two weeks, which I didn’t have. The plan is to return some day soon on a normal holiday with Anne. Panama City is a bit of a shock when you first arrive after being in the rest of Central America, with proper highways, new cars and buses and modern skyscrapers. Fortunately the way people drive quickly reminds you that your are still in Central America. You can see the influence that the close ties with the U.S. have had on the city, and I’ve been told that parts of it are similar to Miami. It is also a bit more expensive than other places, but not as much as I expected. It’s quite nice to walk around parts of the city, especially the old town and the area along the coast between old town and the city centre.
A short drive from Panama City are the Miraflores locks, the first in a set of three locks along the Panama Canal. The locks are needed to raise the passing ships about 25m above sea level to be able to enter Gatun Lake, a huge man-made lake which forms the majority of the journey across Panama. The Miraflores locks raise the ships about 16m, with it taking about 40 minutes for each ship to pass. I was lucky to have three large container ships come through in the two hours I was there. The whole process is very interesting, which the ships passing through using a combination of their own power and between four and eight train engines to pull them through and to stop them from hitting the sides. I did meet people who’d visited and not seen a single ship passing through, so try to find out when is a good time to go.
After a day exploring Panama City I caught the local buses to Santa Catalina, a tiny town on the Pacific coast 6 hours from Panama City. It’s the closest place to Coiba Island, a marine protected area with probably the best shore-based diving and snorkelling in Panama. It’s also a popular surfing spot for both beginners and more experienced surfers. It’s a really chilled place and is very undeveloped compared to other beach places I’ve been to. I was there for the scuba diving and it did not disappoint. I dived with Panama Dive Centre who were had good guides and equipment and offer both single and multi day trips to the island. The diving is quite expensive compared to the popular spots on the Caribbean ($150 for 2 dives or $170 for 3 dives in the low season) but I felt it was worth it. The diving is completely different from the Caribbean as the sites are rocky as opposed to coral and the visibility is lower, but the abundance and variety of sea life makes up for it. In my 4 dives I saw really large bluefin travelly, gafftopsail pompano! I ntermediate golden travelly, blackfin barracuda, Panamic green moray, rainbow chub, 2x pacific sea horses, giant frogfish, white tipped reef shark, cortez garden eel, guineafowl puffers, pacific spadefish, Panamic porkfish, lobster, coral crabs & shrimp, octopus, several turtles, blunthead triggerfish, peacock razor wrasse and king angelfish. Probably the best thing I saw was a school of around 30-40 bluefin trevallies (each about 50 a 75cm) hunting on the reef, accompanied by about 15 white tip reef sharks. The people I spoke to who did the snorkelling all loved it, especially their close encounters with turtles and seeing sharks for the first time. In the first few months of the year the whale sharks arrive and you often see several during dives, so I’m going to have to come back for that!
I headed back to Panama City to catch my flight to Colombia, and decided to do the Panama Beer Experience tour that I’d seen advertised during my previous stay. It’s a 4-5 hour tour that takes you behind the scenes at both the national brewery and a craft brewery, with a stop at a brew pub at the end. The tour was mostly in Spanish, which makes it a bit tricky if you only speak English. However, on the tour of the national brewery the tour guide translated some of what was being said, and at the craft brewery everything was done in both English and Spanish. Actually observing the whole brewing bottling process in person made this tour much more interesting than other beer tours I’ve been on before. Unfortunately no photos where allowed on the tour of the national brewery.
It’s now time to say goodbye to Central America and head to Colombia to meet up with Anne. I’ve had a great time and my concerns over travelling in the wet season have been largely unfounded. As expected it is also not as dangerous as some people perceive it to be.