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Nicaragua: Lakes and Volcanoes
March 29 2016

When we told friends that we were planning a trip to Nicaragua in February to celebrate Bob's 75th birthday most people said something like, "Nicaragua?  Why are you going there?"  So we explained that we had been looking for a warm place to go, not too far away and we'd heard some good things about Nicaragua, namely that it was a land of rich biodiversity, welcoming people, unspoiled beaches and lots of lakes and volcanoes. 
We did a bit of research and decided to plan our trip with the help of ORO Travel, a local tour company.  We worked with Lou, one of the ORO staff and after going back and forth about what we were interested in seeing and doing we came up with a two week itinerary which would take us to nature preserves, lakes, the Colonial city of Granada and a beach on the Pacific side of the country.  ORO made all the arrangements for accommodations, drivers and guides and we couldn't have been more pleased with the tour they put together for us.  The price was reasonable and we were very excited about the activities and accommodations that Lou planned for us.
We landed in Managua, the capital, in the evening, stayed in an upscale hotel near the airport and then were greeted the next morning by Julio, who was to be our guide for the next several days.  Julio is the head tour guide for ORO Travel and he was fantastic.  He has been a professional tour guide for 14 years and is very fluent in English. He is very knowledgeable about Nicaraguan culture, history, flora and fauna and is light-hearted and very easy to be with.
In the morning he took us to a nature reserve, Chocoyero, where we spotted many birds as we walked around the hiking trails there. Unfortunately we missed the mass morning and evening "migrations" the area is famous for, but we did manage to see lots of exotic birds. Then Julio dropped us off at the Montibelli Wildlife Reserve where we stayed for two nights. The reserve has three trails from which you can spot many birds if you are in the company of a sharp eyed guide. It was very rustic (no hot water and no Wi-Fi), we slept under mosquito nets, but the staff was extremely friendly. One totally unplanned highlight of this stay was the presence of a group of American birders who had come to band migrating ruby throated hummingbirds, and other migratory birds.  The leader of the group, Dr. Hinton, is an experienced and passionate birder who is one of the few people certified to band hummingbirds (just think about this for a minute). They set up large 36' by 10' nets in the forest, and caught quite a few birds. When they captured birds they would carefully disentangle them from the net. If they caught a ruby throated hummingbird, or another migratory bird, Dr. Hinton would band it. The hope is that it will someday be spotted in another part of the world, thus adding to the knowledge of migratory routes. These tiny birds migrate from the US to Central America over the Caribbean and back each year.  Simply amazing. 
When we left Montibelli we went to a large lake (Laguna de Apoyo) that was formed from a filled in extinct volcano.  It is about two miles across, almost perfectly round, has almost no development around it and the surrounding trees are filled with howler monkeys and more amazing birds. The water temperature is delicious because it is filled by warm, hydrothermal springs. We were here for two nights and were treated to the sight of a full orange moon rising over the lake. The "villa" we stayed in was nice, but the things we enjoyed most were the hammocks, rocking chairs, and the view from on high of the lake. We did nothing but eat, sit in the sun and jump in the lake.  There's an Italian expression, "la dulce fa niente" which means "the sweetness of doing nothing", and that was definitely us!
Next, on to Granada, a beautifully restored colonial town, sultry and tropical on the shore of Lake Nicaragua and within sight of the Mombacho volcano.  The city is supposedly the oldest city in the western hemisphere, and it carries its age well. The colorful facades lining the narrow streets almost glow in the evening sun. It has a lovely and lively central plaza and is very pleasant to explore by foot. We stayed in a charming 12 room hotel with two lush indoor courtyards, a small pool and a wonderful staff; not a five-star hotel, but definitely a five-star experience.  Here we met up with Julio again who took us on a walking tour of the city during which we had very interesting conversations about historical, political and social aspects of Nicaragua.  One afternoon, we had lunch in a restaurant run by deaf and mute people who also make beautiful hammocks...out of discarded plastic bags!  People with disabilities have a hard time here and the guy who started this business did so to create jobs and hopefully, a better life for his employees.
Later that day we went on a boat tour of the Isletas, a series of small islands that dot the coast of Lake Nicaragua. We saw more birds and monkeys, and a diverse collection of dwellings on these islands, from fishing shacks to the large house owned by the richest man in Nicaragua. Later, we had dinner outside in one of the many restaurants that line a busy pedestrian street (Calle Calzada) near the central plaza, taking advantage of the Happy Hour 2 for 1 drink specials.
The next day it was time to hike around the top of the Mombacho volcano.  We were driven to the top in an open truck, up a torturously steep road, and then did about a four mile hike that was a never ending series of ups and downs in the midst of a cloud forest. Mombacho is a masterpiece of trail building, with thousands of steep steps climbing and descending. The jungle around us was incredibly dense off trail. We stopped a few times for our guide's description of particular trees and flowers.  We even saw a sleeping sloth.  Although the volcano is dormant there was definitely the smell of sulfur as we hiked. This was followed by a canopy zip line tour through the forest at the base of the volcano. We zipped from platform to platform for a distance of about two miles. Much fun and very exciting.
The next stop was the island of Ometepe, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  The lake is huge, almost the size of Puerto Rico.  Ometepe is shaped sort of like a dumbbell, formed by the lava from two volcanos connected by a narrow isthmus where the flows met. One volcano is intermittently active, the other is dormant.  We got there on a ferry that took 75 minutes.  It was quite windy, with whitecaps on the lake, but we made it safely.  The island is quiet, rural, and agricultural, with a population of about 42,000 residents. The people are quite poor, but much prefer living on their island rather than "over there".  Our lodge was in a banana plantation overlooking the lake. It was very quiet and isolated and the porch of our room overlooked the lake and a few very small islands.  The water was very warm and inviting, but was actually too shallow to swim in.  Two to three hundred feet from the shore, and the water was only knee deep! 
Our itinerary called for us to spend one day at a reserve and then go to a natural spring which is a local geothermal swimming hole. We were, however, somewhat preoccupied by thoughts of our hike for the following day which would take us to the top of the inactive volcano on the island.  We met several much younger and fitter people who said it was one of the hardest things they had ever done so we decided to wimp out and only hike part way. This turned out to be a great idea.  We hiked for about 3-4 hours through the steep rainforest and saw lots of monkeys and birds, also cattle being herded to graze on the slopes of the volcano. This was followed by a brief stroll through a small park which contained a multitude of boulders inscribed with 1,250 year old petroglyphs.
After two nights on Ometepe we went to San Juan del Sur, a beach town on the Pacific.  It was very hot and we couldn't stay in the sun for very long.  The beach was on a sheltered bay but for some reason the water was quite cold, probably in the high 60s.  Very strange since it was shallow and the air temperatures were in the 90s every day. We did swim each day until we got too cold. There were great sunsets on the beach viewed from one of a large assortment of thatched roof restaurants, all with great Happy Hour specials.
Then the next day, we transferred back for 2 1/2 hours to the Managua airport hotel for our flight out the following day.  
Nicaragua is very volcanic and because of this the soil is very fertile. Pineapple, mangoes, sugar cane, corn, coffee, plantain, papayas and many other fruits thrive here in abundance. Nicaragua is a primarily agricultural country but now the hope is that the development of tourism will help lift the economy.  Nicaragua is beautiful.  People were very warm to us and we felt very safe.  They are starting to put a tourism infrastructure in place and it is an inexpensive place for North Americans to visit. So yes, by all means visit Nicaragua. We would suggest using ORO Travel to help plan your trip. Be ready to discover a beautiful and friendly country that, hopefully, is on the cusp of fully coming into itself.

Bob and Sadj Bartolo
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