When Ana told us she needed to head up to Nicaragua on the last day of our honeymoon, I started thinking about everything I knew about Costa Rica’s nearest neighbor. I knew of tumultuous histories, war-torn realities, vicious dictators….all of the reasons not to take a 3-hour bus ride across the border just to spend a few hours in a country I was taught to fear as a child. But I also knew of magnificent volcanoes with active craters, massive freshwater lakes, flea markets and craft villages, colonial cities, Spanish cathedrals, fresh fruits and juices, local foods, and cobblestone alleys. I started thinking of everything I didn’t know, of the way a country slowly unveils itself over time, the way the cracks and fissures in what we think we know starts to dissolve after we open our hearts to a new place and let it speak to us on its own terms. I thought about the other countries I’d visited and loved in Latin America, and I realized, over the course of the week, that my heart was aching for Nicaragua. When, at the end of the week, Ana—our tour guide with TAM Travels—twisted around from the passenger seat of the car and asked us on a whim if we would want to trade our last day in Costa Rica and take a 12-hour day trip to Nicaragua with her instead, we never even hesitated. Because when the universe tells you to do something, when the stars align just right, you buckle in and hang on for the ride.
So, the next morning, my husband and I set our alarms for 3:30 in the morning, woke up when Costa Rica’s skies were still the pitchest black of night, packed a backpack, and met Ana downstairs in the lobby. We drove from the coast to downtown Liberia (which isn’t a very long ride at all—no more than 25 minutes without traffic), met the rest of the group at a local breakfast restaurant on one of the main streets, and waited for our 5:30 a.m. bus to arrive. When it did, my heart started to beat more quickly; I felt that fluttery feeling that I had felt six days before when my feet first touched on Costa Rican soil, that feeling I have felt so many times, that feeling that, for a traveler, is the sustaining force of our lives.
Nicaragua holds a lot of mystique for me—it’s a place of dichotomies, of tumultuous histories and uncertain futures. An in-between present. And typically, I like to think I am the kind of slow traveler who meanders her way through a place, getting to know its eccentricities and personalities with grace and openness, and this was definitely not that kind of trip. This was an on-again-off-again kind of bus tour, and there we were, sitting in the back of the Plus Papagayo tour bus with Luis, our Nicaraguan tour guide, and eighteen other tourists.
It was, quite frankly, the perfect end to our Costa Rican honeymoon—and a very sweet reminder of why I love the messiness, the noisiness, and the unmistakable beauty of Latin America. Here’s what we crammed into twelve hours:
1. El Gran Lago de Nicaragua (Nicaragua’s Great Lake)
The first stop we made after crossing the border (which should perhaps be listed as a whole other experience in itself) was to a magnificent prospect overlooking the Great Lake of Nicaragua, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. We drove through colonial villages and cobblestone alleys, craft markets and street fairs, and wound up and up and up. When we reached the top, the skies were a brilliant blue (with those perfect fluffy clouds), and, though it was exceptionally windy, the villagers at the top were setting up their outdoor shops for the morning. Small boats dotted the bright blue waters below and people walked by with fruit baskets on their heads and leading donkeys carrying baskets by their sides. We looked out onto the enormous round lake, spotted the tips of volcanoes and their smoky ash in all directions, and watched children learn how to weave baskets from their mothers. Fifteen minutes later, we boarded the bus and headed to Masaya.
2. Masaya village shopping
After marveling at the blue waters and green hills surrounding Lake Nicaragua, Plus Papagayo tour will probably take you, as they did with us, to the tourist’s craft market right outside of Masayo village. The craft market is housed inside the remains of an old fortress, and is, to be frank, not much more than a classic tourist trap. When we pulled up to the entrance, we were nearly accosted by English-speaking tour guides, asking us if they could take us on a guided tour of the marketplace in exchange for a fee. (Tip #1: Want to make their day? Do what I did and answer back in Spanish with a Colombian accent—they will love you forever). Then (here’s Tip #2), walk around the corner to the main street, hail a cab, and go 2 kilometers up the street. A mile up the road, you’ll find yourself as a local craft market, where the streets are much noisier, the food much tastier, and the prices much cheaper. We hailed a taxi, stopped off on the right-side of the road after the bridge, entered the closed-air market, and walked through the rows and rows of artisanal products, eventually buying handmade ceramic bowls decorated with delicately etched turtles and flowers on them ($4.50 USD a piece) and two hand-crafted leather wallets ($10 USD a piece). An hour later, we re-joined the tour group at the entrance to the tourist market.
3. Masaya Volcano
From Masaya village, we drove about a half-hour to Masaya National Park, where we had the chance to drive all the way up to the mouth of the crater and witness the massive Masaya Volcano. Masaya is one of the only volcanoes in the Western hemisphere where you can drive to the top, park, and peer curiously into the crater. We did just that. (And I’m going to let the picture speak for itself on this one). It was breathtaking, smelly (all that sulphur!), and downright awesome.
4. Lunch and walking tour in downtown Granada, one of the oldest cities in Central America
Because I’m the perpetual city lover, Granada was–and still is–the place I most yearn(ed) to visit. It’s one of those cities that feels gentle, busy, colorful, and peaceful all at the same time. It’s obvious when you arrive in Granada city: the colored buildings, the cobblestone alleys, the outdoor cafes and fruit stands, the parks, that bright yellow cathedral, affectionately known as El Catedral…..there’s no mistaking Granada. When our bus started pulling to a stop, I nearly pushed my way out of the bus, dragging Ryan with me to the Main Square, buying an espresso, walking through the central park, and admiring the government buildings and churches that populate the area. For an hour, we strolled around, popping into stores, sitting on park benches, getting lost on side streets, and meeting interesting people. When we joined up with Luis’ guided tour, we knew Granada was one of those cities that, although we’d barely had the chance to get to know each other, would become one of those special cities that we’d yearn to return to some day. We are currently yearning to do that very thing.
Lunch was excellent, too–we stopped into one of the colonial hotels and had porkchops with a pesto sauce and fresh vegetables and rice. We tried the local lager–Tona–and loved it. Both lunch and beer were light, fresh, and refreshing.
5. Boat ride around Lake Nicaragua
Our last stop for the day was at that marina outside of Granada, where we took a small guided boat tour around Lake Nicaragua. We drove up and around the hundreds of little islands off the coastline, and our guide told us all about the coffee, banana plantation, and rum owners who own property on the islands (some of them even own the islands themselves). Though we had to battle an unprecedented number of mosquitoes pummeling through our boat, the ride was well worth it: not only did we have the chance to see so many beautiful homes, we ran into a family of monkeys, explored the marshes, and learned a little bit about the contemporary Nicaraguan lifestyle from our guide.
When we disembarked, the sun was just beginning to set, and we knew that we’d done the right thing.
Nicaragua was the perfect last stop on our Costa Rican honeymoon.
TAM Travel’s day trip to Nicaragua with Plus Papagayo transportation includes: an early-morning breakfast at a local restaurant in downtown Liberia, round-trip air-conditioned bus ride with a bilingual tour guide, all Nicaraguan entrance and exit taxes, entrance to Masaya National Park, lunch and narrated walking tour in downtown Granada, a guided boat ride around Lake Nicaragua, and a special surprise souvenir at the end (but don’t tell anyone I told you about that). To arrange your own tour to Nicaragua from Guanacaste, Costa Rica, you can book online or contact TAM Travel Corporation to help you arrange all the details.
Article and all photographs by Kristin Winet.
A special thanks to Ana Yancy Chaves and the rest of the team at TAM Travel Corporation for hosting our beautiful honeymoon in Costa Rica (and, to our delight, Nicaragua, too!).