As our respective governments are not exactly best-of-friends, we had to request special approval to drive across the border. We could have flown in quite easily, but saving $800 on flights (plus car rental) for what should have been a 6-hour drive seemed worth the extra step and the wait. The wait lasted roughly 6 weeks; long enough for us to think we weren’t going at all. Alas, our approval came through just days before we were due to leave during the Thanksgiving holiday, so our planning was virtually nil. I booked some quick AirBnBs, downloaded the Nicaragua maps.me maps, and we set off.
Thanks to lots of road work, it took us more than 9 hours to cover the 200ish miles between Tegucigalpa and Las Penitas. An hour long visit to secondary at the border crossing didn’t make it any faster, but my Spanish is apparently now passable enough to negotiate our way across contentious borders. I call that a win. The drive improved markedly the instant we crossed the border. We enjoyed sweeping views of volcanos while cruising on smooth roads amongst drivers who navigate like laws are a real thing to be taken seriously.
We snuck through Leon on the way to the nearest beach town, Las Penitas. Our randomly chosen hotel, Bomalu, may be the most relaxing place I’ll ever visit in my life. It has Tortuga Verde vibes but with virtually no noise except the sound of the waves and the pant of their friendly, two-toed pup. It’s not luxurious by any means, but the AC was cold, the food was great, and the atmosphere tempted us the spend nearly our entire two days there lounging.
With no surf in sight, we decided to head back inland early the next morning. Planning to hit Leon on our way back up to Honduras, we drove straight down toward Granada. We stopped at the Masaya Volcano along the way, a tightly controlled tourist operation, but worth the trip if you want to see lava. Because the volcano is spewing so much gas, you’re only allowed to drive to the top (Nicaragua has plenty of hiking opportunities on less active volcanos, however) where a guard with a timer promptly reminds you of the 10-minute time limit for visitors. 10 minutes was enough to lean over the caldera and stare in awe at the lava bubbling at the bottom.
We then took the world’s fastest stroll through the Masaya Market, which was the most blatant tourist trap I’ve ever visited. Unless you’re into random trinkets probably not even made in Nicaragua, carry on.
We might also suggest you skip Granada, too. To say it was a letdown is putting it mildly. The picturesque pastel-painted streets you see in postcards and Google image searches are limited to only a few blocks, easily covered in an hour or so of wandering. Perhaps we’re just jaded from too much time in Tegucigalpa, but we were wary of venturing beyond those few blocks on foot. Unsure of what else to do in Granada and realizing Central American cities just aren’t our thing, we ended up canceling our AirBnB in the city and ventured the 2 hours back up to Hotel Bomalu to re-evaluate.
We spent the next day on the beautiful, deserted beach and the afternoon exploring Leon, which suited us much better than Granada but still was easily explored in a few hours. After exploring, we retreated to another spectacular sunset on the beach, where we tried to plan where to head next. In a moment of serendipity, a friend texted warning about a hurricane looming down on the opposite coast of Nicaragua. It looked like we wouldn’t be heading anywhere but home.
Defeated by poor planning and bad timing, we packed up the next morning and made the long 8-hour trek back to Tegucigalpa. You know what they say about the best-laid plans (or in this case complete lack of plans).
Despite bailing out of our trip 5 days early, I’d still 100% recommend Nicaragua to anyone serving in Central America. Like Costa Rica, it stood in stark contrast to Honduras in terms of infrastructure and tourism. We saw only a tiny portion over 2 days, but it was beautiful. The smooth roads and road signs make for easy travel and even the long drives between landmarks are highlighted with stunning scenery, from lakes to steaming volcanos. The beaches are pristine and sparsely populated (except, perhaps San Juan del Sur) and there are so many opportunities for hiking and eco-tourism you couldn’t possibly be bored with some proper planning. The people were friendly and helpful at every turn and good food abounds.
I suppose it wouldn’t be a proper tour in Central America without one spectacularly failed trip. We seem to know a number of people who’ve faced similar or much worse (mysteriously canceled flights, pot-hole related tire explosions, stolen passports, vaccination problems), so I consider us lucky.
I have to admit I’m sad to have seen so little of Nicaragua and Central America at large (Guatemala, in particular, is a gap I regret). The silver lining, of course, is a huge stockpile of time off to be spent at our next post, where border crossings are less ominous, natural disasters are few and far between, and safety is nearly a guarantee.