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Travel & Holiday

Novelty of Nicaragua

There are volcanoes to climb, crater lakes to explore, beaches to enjoy and quaint towns to visit
The Straits Times - March 20, 2012
By: Jennani Durai
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Novelty of Nicaragua

Flying into the Central American country of Nicaragua, the first thing you notice from the plane is something unpredictable.

No, it is nothing to do with the country's recent troubled past. For decades, Nicaragua was torn by civil war, but now, amid more peaceful times, it has become popular with tourists as an off-the-beaten-track destination.

The unpredictability is to do with its topography. Volcanoes and crater lakes dot the landscape, but more than just a stunning view from an airplane window, these landforms promise travellers uncommon adventure.

There are 19 volcanoes to climb in Nicaragua, a small triangle-shaped country sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica, and eight of them are still active.

And I experienced uncommon adventure, all right - on Volcan Maderas in Nicaragua's western jungle areas. I took 13 hours to climb the dormant volcano instead of the usual seven and ended up having to be carried down on a hammock by four Nicaraguan men. A combination of never having climbed anything higher than Bukit Timah hill and sports shoes that were not meant for hiking meant that my knees gave out towards the end from exhaustion.

However, all that terror and excitement lay ahead.

As soon as I landed in the capital, Managua, I headed straight out of it - and I would advise most travellers to do the same.

A mish-mash of high-end malls and shanty towns - with hospitals sprouting up haphazardly next to bottled-drink factories - the city lacks the beauty or culture of the rest of the country, in addition to being significantly less safe for conspicuous backpackers such as myself and my boyfriend.

What we did instead was to travel south for an hour to the city of Granada by a minivan known locally as a microbus.

In Nicaragua, transport comes in the form of public buses, microbuses, collective taxis (where a taxi waits for enough passengers to be full before leaving for a destination) and regular taxis. Buses cost less than US$1 (S$1.26), while taxis can cost up to US$20.

Preferring to travel cheaply, my boyfriend and I travelled by public buses and microbuses throughout.

With churches and houses in traditional Spanish colonial architecture, Granada's old-world charm is the perfect introduction to Nicaragua without overwhelming a new traveller's senses.

The city square is a small area where handicraft sellers and street-food hawkers congregate. At each of the four corners of the square are cafes, where I sampled traditional Nicaraguan fare such as gallo pinto, a dish of refried rice and beans typically eaten for breakfast with scrambled eggs and cheese which costs around US$1.50.

Granada is still very much a tourist haven, so if you are looking for more authentic shopping, a day trip to nearby Masaya is your best bet. A bus ride there will take 45 minutes and cost less than US$1. There, a large open-air market selling a wide variety of cheap pottery, arts, handicraft and hammocks is a traveller's best option for souvenirs.

My next stop - and highlight of the trip - was the Island Ometepe, two hours from Granada. After travelling to the town of San Jorge by bus, we took an hour-long ferry ride to the island, which cost around US$3.

The island's main town, Moyogalpa, is tourist-friendly and boasts Internet cafes, pharmacies and other amenities as well as a wide variety of backpackers' inns and hotels.

Prices for accommodation here, as well as in most other parts of the country, can range from US$5 (for a bed in a dorm room) to US$80 a night for a nice hotel. Some places will also offer the option of sleeping in a hammock outdoors, for US$3.

Only tourists need transportation to venture further into the island from Moyogalpa, so expect to be slightly over- charged for transport into Ometepe's interior.

Ometepe, however, is safe and small enough that travellers can opt to rent bicycles or motorcycles, or even walk.

Brimming with the confidence of a first-time explorer of the outdoors, I signed up for a two-hour kayak tour the day before I planned to climb up Volcan Maderas, one of the island's twin peaks. The other is called Concepcion, also an active volcano.

The kayak tour (US$20) starts at a lodge called Caballitos Del Mar, 5km from Maderas. Travellers kayak in pairs behind a guide who takes you to an estuary where monkeys, caimans and various birds can be spotted among lush greenery.

We did not intend to walk the 5km to the volcano, but missing the last bus at 5pm meant we had no other choice, and a combination of hitchhiking and regular hiking for 5km brought us to the foot of the Maderas volcano.

A coffee farm called Finca Magdalena is located at the foot of the volcano and is the best place to stay for would-be climbers.

In addition to cheap and comfortable rooms, the staff at the farm were among the friendliest people I met on the trip.

They were also the reason I managed to get back down from the 1,395m-high volcano the next day.

We were already slow in reaching the summit and I slowed us down considerably further on the way down, when each downward step sent spasms of excruciating pain through my knees. And just as our guide informed us that we would not make it down before sunset and would likely be hiking in near darkness, my knees, having bent to take a step down, refused to straighten.

Thankfully, our guide had a cellphone, and when we did not come down the volcano by sunset, the staff at the farm called him and sent reinforcements up to help get me down.

The climb itself was beautiful, if hard. The forested slopes gave way to viewpoints every so often where the other volcano, Concepcion, could be seen in breathtaking detail.

At the top of the volcano was a pretty crater lake with freezing water that looked clearer than it really was.

Thankfully, my knees hurt considerably less the next day, and after that terrifying climb down, relaxing by the beach in San Juan Del Sur - an hour south of Ometepe - was the best way to round off the trip.

There, sparkling waters and stretches of unspoilt shoreline more than made up for the fact that tourists seem to outnumber locals.

The sunset at San Juan Del Sur is best enjoyed at one of the makeshift beach bars along the shore.

Nicaraguans are proud of their alcohol to an almost patriotic degree. Try Tona, the cheapest and most popular Nicaraguan beer, and Flor De Cana, the country's national rum product.

Of course, there are still treks in the area that adrenaline junkies could choose to go on, but after a harrowing few hours of knee pain and nearly not making it back down a volcano, supporting the local fermented beverage industry was the only way I wanted to end my trip on.

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights from Singapore to Nicaragua. The best way to get there is to fly to any major city in the United States, from where you could take an American Airlines or United Airlines flight to Managua, with a stopover in Miami, Florida, at a cost of about US$2,300 (S$2,900) for a return trip.

5 things to do

1 Pick up a few Spanish phrases before the trip. A little goes a long way.

2 Use local transportation rather than take taxis or rent cars to go everywhere. It is cheaper and allows you to get to know the country in a less touristy way.

3 Hire local guides before you do anything outdoors. Not only does it support the local economy, but it also keeps you from getting lost - or stuck up a volcano.

4 Be prepared for buses to be packed full of people. Nicaraguans do not have the same ideas about personal space.

5 Be careful about taking out your camera too often while in the cities as it could make you a target for robbers.

2 don'ts

1 Don't spend any more time than you need to in the capital, Managua.

2 Don't use a hand sanitiser in public. Be discreet if you need to use it because Nicaraguans are sensitive to foreigners thinking they are unhygenic.

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