A wonderful week in Nicaragua

By Theodore Liebersfeld
This article appears on page 6 of the May 2016 issue.
Panoramic view from the roof of the cathedral in León.

What should I do with my $219 American Airlines voucher? That was the question. 

I didn’t want to have to add on too much more in cash, but I was definitely in the mood for some interesting international travel. Hmmm.

Nicaragua was the only Central American country that I had not yet visited, and I had seen several good reviews of this increasingly popular travel destination, so I handed over my voucher along with my credit card for the $565-round-trip fare for my nonstop flights between Miami and Managua.

Then I began the research and planning for my one-week January 2015 trip. Using a Lonely Planet travel guide as well as the websites of Paxeos (www.paxeos.com), Tierra Tours (www.tierratour.com), Expedia (expedia.com) and Booking.com, I organized what turned out to be a very enjoyable adventure.

Where to stay

My self-planned trip to Nicaragua included solo stays in Granada, León and Managua as well as visits to Las Isletas, Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, the town of Masaya, the mirador (lookout) in the town of Catarina and a pottery workshop/school in San Juan de Oriente.

In Granada I stayed three nights at Hotel Colonial (Calle La Libertad; hotelcolonialgranada.com) for $70 per night plus taxes, not including breakfast. The hotel was a colorfully decorated small property located just off Parque Central. The staff was friendly, the service was excellent, and my room was clean and comfortable.

In León I stayed three nights at Hotel Flor de Sarta (phone 011 505 2311 1042) for $55 per night plus taxes. A newly constructed boutique hotel, it was just four blocks from the León Cathedral along Avenida Central. My room was bright and spacious, and the included breakfast buffet offered a tasty variety. 

The French owner of the hotel was very accommodating and enjoyed chatting with his guests.

In Managua I stayed one night at Hotel Casa Naranja (km. 4.5 Carretera a Masaya) for $85 per night plus taxes. This boutique hotel is located in a quiet, safe residential district that is just off Managua’s main drag. 

The public areas of the hotel were decorated with a rich variety of art, antiques and other picturesque items. The included breakfast consisted of a choice from about 10 carefully prepared items, and it was served on the patio. 

The León Cathedral as seen from Parque Central.

On the street where the hotel was located, the small Parque Doctor Sun Yat-Sen provided a peaceful place for quiet reflection.

Getting around

Transportation between the major tourist centers in Nicaragua was very convenient. Prior to leaving home, I had arranged with Paxeos by email for a private car to meet my flight and take me from the airport in Managua to my hotel in Granada ($40). Paxeos also offers an inexpensive shuttle service, but the times did not coincide with the arrival time of my flight. 

From Granada to León, Tierra Tours offered door-to-door shuttle service for $15. I was the only passenger. 

My most expensive transportation cost was for the trip from León to Managua. I needed to make a private arrangement (via Tierra Tours) because I wanted to go to a hotel rather than the airport, and I wanted to include a private sightseeing tour of Managua. The inclusive cost was $90 (if paying in cash). 

Tierra Tours, in Granada and León, and Colonial Tours, in Granada, are good sources for day trips to the surrounding areas and sights. There are also many other reputable tour operators with offices along the pedestrian zone on Calle La Calzada in Granada.

Eating out

For dinners in Granada, Calle La Calzada and its intersecting streets are chock-full of excellent restaurants of every type. I particularly enjoyed the steakhouse El Zaguan (on the street behind the cathedral). I also had excellent meals at El Pizzaiol and Pizzeria Don Luca

Colonial architecture in Granada.

León has many excellent restaurants as well, and most of them are clustered around Parque Central. I enjoyed my dinners in León at El Sesteo, Taquezal and Carnivoro

Managua is very spread out, but there are several good restaurants within safe walking distance of Hotel Casa Naranja. (The hotel provided a map.) I had a typical Nicaraguan meal on the outdoor terrace of La Cocina de Doña Haydée

Dinner costs at all the restaurants I visited ran from $15 to $20 for a 3-course meal with wine or beer.

Menus generally quoted prices in córdobas (valued at about 25 to one US dollar), so it was convenient to exchange some money to use for restaurant meals as well for as taxi rides and purchases at street stands or local stores. Museums and other sightseeing attractions were happy to collect their small admission fees (if any) in dollars or córdobas. Large tourist shops were also happy to accept US dollars, with no advantage to using either currency.

What to see

For sightseeing within Granada or León, most places of interest are easily reached by walking, but if you get really tired, taxi service is inexpensive. I found both cities to be very safe and comfortable for strolling, even at night. While roaming the streets, I was particularly fascinated by the distinct and colorful colonial architecture. It also was a joy to see individuals and families engaged in their daily routines. 

Most churches were open for free visits during the day. It was well worth the time to go inside to see the beautiful (and sometimes priceless) works of art and decoration. 

Besides its churches, León has a strong tradition of colorful street art to admire. Much of it commemorates the Nicaraguan revolutions and its heroes.

In Granada, I made formal visits to the Catedral de Granada; Fundacion Casa de los Tres Mundos; Museo del Convento de San Francisco; Iglesia de la Merced, and Antigua Estación del Ferrocarril. Entry was free at some of the sites and $1 to $2 at others. 

I also was fascinated with the atmosphere and the varied products for sale at Mercado Municipal.

On one of my days in Granada I booked a tour of “Las Isletas” with Colonial Tours ($20). The 1½-hour boat trip took passengers on Lake Nicaragua to see a selection of the more than 300 small volcanic islands. 

Some of the islets contain simple homes of locals, while others sport immense mansions that are leisure homes for the wealthy. 

We saw fishermen in their boats and trawling with their fishing nets, and we saw many colorful waterbirds and other wildlife. On Monkey Island, a sanctuary for pet monkeys that were abandoned by their owners, it was a delight to watch the antics of the capuchin monkeys.

Statue at the Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa in Managua.

Museum visits

On another of my days in Granada I booked a full-day (6-hour) Masaya Volcano tour with Tierra Tours ($35). We started with a visit to Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, which included a guided stroll around the informative museum and an extended stop at the lip of the smoking, sulfurous volcanic cone, with the nearby Cruz de Bobadilla, a cross planted at the lip of the volcano. 

In the town of Masaya, we stopped for views at the malecón (promenade) along Laguna de Masaya, then traveled to the famous Mercado de Artesanías. We had time for lunch and independent exploration of the town, including its parish church, Parroquia de la Asunción, before continuing to the mirador in the village of Catarina. The views of Laguna de Apoyo and the surrounding countryside were incredible! 

Finally, we stopped in one of Nicaragua’s Pueblo Blancos, San Juan de Oriente, famous for its indigenous, skilled pottery artisans. At Taller Escuela de Cerámica Valentín López we visited with the family, and Valentín López, himself, treated us to a demonstration of the time-consuming process of creating intricate designs on articles of pottery.

León has many well-organized museums. Admission fees were generally in the range $1 to $2. 

My favorite was Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones, housed in a former prison. Drawings of prisoner confrontations decorated its whitewashed walls, and the forecourt had several beautiful tile murals commemorating prison issues. The legends and traditions were portrayed using life-size dioramas featuring papier-mâché figures. 

Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián had an extensive, comprehensive, eye-popping collection that focused on works by Latin American artists. Museo Histórico de la Revolución, off Parque Central, was housed in an old mansion and contained photos, documents, paintings, murals, posters and other memorabilia of Nicaragua’s long revolutionary history. Revolutionary veterans walk you around the display rooms and provide commentary. 

Managua’s Antigua Catedral on the Plaza de la Revolución.

Museo y Archivo Rubén Darío was ensconced in the colonial home where Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío lived as a child. The museum featured rooms furnished with pieces from the era of Darío’s childhood and others displaying documents, letters and published volumes.

Also in León, the Basilica Catedral de la Asunción is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides visiting the art riches in its interior (free), I paid about $3 to be admitted to the spiral staircase leading to the roof. From there I got magnificent panoramic views of the colonial streets and the town surrounded by volcanoes. 

Managua sights

For sightseeing within Managua, because of distance and safety factors, it is recommended to use a commercial tour operator or a privately arranged tour. Visitors are advised not to wander unaccompanied in the historical areas of the city. 

As I noted above, the tour that I arranged with Tierra Tours was part of a $90 package that included my transportation from León. The tour included exterior visits to the Antigua Catedral, the Palacio Nacional and the Casa de los Pueblos. All three are located along the periphery of Plaza de la Revolución. 

Nearby I saw Plaza de la Fe Juan Pablo II, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, a well-known statue of Simón Bolívar on horseback and the monuments and mausoleums in Parque Central. 

My guide and I strolled along the malecón that lines Lake Managua at Puerto Salvador Allende for about 15 minutes, then we paid a visit to Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa, where there is a huge statue of the silhouette of revolutionary hero Sandino. This silhouette is Managua’s most recognizable landmark. 

From the summit, there were magnificent views that included the city’s historical area, the Nueva Catedral and Laguna de Tiscapa.

Late the next morning, sated by my flavorful breakfast at Hotel Casa Naranja and reflecting on my very picturesque travel adventure in Nicaragua, I boarded a taxi (arranged by the hotel for $17) and in 30 minutes had arrived at Managua’s Aeropuerto Internacional Augusto C. Sandino. Shortly afterward I was on a plane, flying home to Miami with many happy memories of a great trip.