The End of the Honeymoon, Part 1

As we neared the end of our trip to Nicaragua, there were still a handful of places we wanted to visit. We were down to only 3 days though, so we decided to head for Granada because we had heard good things from other travelers we met and it is close enough to Managua that we could get to the airport by taxi on our last day. Granada is a traditional colonial town with beautiful, old architecture and rich culture. We were excited to learn a bit more about Nicaragua.

We arrived after dark via the aforementioned Tica Bus without a hotel reservation for the night. On the bus ride, I had called a couple of places and, doing the best I could in Spanish, tried to arrange a room. The first place I called offered a rate that was more than double what we saw online so we decided to keep looking. It turned out that the online rate was per person, despite the fact that it was for a “double room.” That is something to watch out for when traveling internationally; hotel prices often vary depending on the number of people. The next place I called looked really nice and the man on the phone, who spoke no English at all, was able to tell me that they did have rooms available but he needed to call the manager to make the reservation. After a rather stilted conversation I figured out that he was going to call the manager to actually come in and meet us at the hotel when we arrived.

When we got off the Tica Bus we were on a fairly dark, mostly residential, street. We were soon greeted by an American who introduced himself and explained that he ran a hostel down the road. We told him we had arranged for a room at a hotel, Casa Lucia, and he helped us with directions and assured us that it was safe to walk around town at night. He also told us that he ran day trips from his hostel to various attractions just outside town, including Laguna Apoyo which we had planned to visit. He invited us to just let him know if we wanted to participate and he would arrange space in the van. We quickly went from feeling a bit disconcerted about where we were and what we were doing to feeling confident and excited to be in this new place.

We made our way to Casa Lucia which was situated on a quiet, residential street just outside the busier city center. The face of the hotel is a simple blue wall with a gate and a small sign to let you know where you are. When we arrived, the man I spoke with on the phone was there to greet us and let us in. He said the manager would be there soon and he showed us around the property a bit. We were in awe at how beautiful, and large, the property was. The quaint facade did not portray what we found inside. When you first walk in you are greeted with a welcoming seating area and a bar hosting local beer and cocktails. As you continue down the narrow path, you pass an on-site rented apartment on one side and a guest room on the other. Then you step out into an open area which contains a stunning pool, an outdoor yoga studio, a kitchen, and multiple seating areas. From here you can look up and see the rest of the guest rooms as well as a rooftop patio complete with hammock.

Casa Lucia from roof top patio
Casa Lucia from roof top patio

 

Casa Lucia pool
Casa Lucia pool

Needless to say, we were glad we made the extra effort to find this place. When the manager arrived, she showed us two available rooms and we picked one which had a king-size bed and was big and open with vaulted ceilings. It was truly luxurious. After the necessary paperwork, we put our stuff down, freshened up a bit, and headed out for a late dinner. El Zaguan is a steakhouse which was recommended to us and we were pleased to find a great atmosphere and a mix of locals and tourists. We ordered a pitcher of sangria, which was delicious, and each of us ordered a steak. The food was divine. We both agreed it was definitely the best steak we’d had in Central America and even some of the best anywhere. We came home to Casa Lucia that night happy and ready for a good night’s rest.

The next morning we woke up feeling great, ready for another exciting day. We went downstairs where there was fresh coffee and a cook in the kitchen ready to make us breakfast. We both ordered the classic Nicaraguan breakfast: Gallo pinto and eggs. It was also served with fresh fruit, juice, bread, and jam. Everything was delicious and we both thought it was the best gallo pinto we’d had. The cook was actually from the Corn Islands so we got to talking about our visit there and it turns out he knows Ike, the owner of the inn we stayed at on Big Corn Island. It goes to show what a small island it really is.

After breakfast we spent the day just wandering around the town, admiring the beautiful architecture. We stopped and had lunch at a food stand in the center of town but were a bit under impressed. A little later, after we took a walk along the shore of Lake Nicaragua, we stopped for afternoon drinks and a snack at a restaurant that has the reputation of having the best Macuás in town. The macuá is Nicaragua’s official cocktail and contains Flor de Caña (the national rum), guava juice, and lemon or lime juice. They were very good and it was very easy to drink too many of them without noticing. We walked around some more and then headed back to the hotel to enjoy the pool. Later that night we went back into town for dinner where we sat outside and watched the people go by.

Walking around Granada
Walking around Granada

The next day, our last full day in Nicaragua, we headed to GM Granada hostel where we had arranged to meet the van heading to Laguna Apoyo. While we waited there for the van, we got a tour of the hostel which was really very nice. Had we been more focused on sticking to a budget, we definitely would have been happy to stay there. It was clean and comfortable and even had a pool. Finally, the van came and we squeezed in with a bunch of other people. We stopped at one or two more places before heading out of town for the lake. The van was completely full at that point, mostly of people from the US. There were a few girls who were in Nicaragua volunteering at an orphanage, some other backpackers, and a couple from Baltimore who had recently gotten engaged.

We arrived at Laguna Apoyo and were shown around the hostel resort which was really cool. It had multiple levels, leading down to the shore of the lake. There was a bar and restaurant and they made it easy with a system where you just order food and drinks all day and pay at the end. The use of kayaks and inner tubes was included. Laguna Apoyo is a lake in the crater of a volcano. The water is clear and refreshing and apparently is extremely deep in the center. We made use of the kayaks and inner tubes and really enjoyed the lake. We spent the day hanging out with the couple from Baltimore, Blayne and Elizabeth. We had a lot in common and it was only too bad that we didn’t meet before our last day.

Laguna Apoyo
Laguna Apoyo

It turned out it was their last day too and we quickly learned that we were on the same flight from Managua to Houston the next day. We had already arranged a taxi to take us from Granada to Managua so we invited them to join us and split the fare. When we got back to Granada from Laguna Apoyo, we invited them over to our hotel for a couple of mojitos. Made by the hotel manager, they were probably the best mojitos any of us had ever had. After drinks, we arranged to meet later on for our last dinner in Nicaragua.

We met up at Ciudad Lounge, a hip restaurant owned and run by a couple from San Diego. When we arrived we were seated in a comfortable outdoor “lounge” area. We ordered drinks and appetizers and just sat and enjoyed the relaxed ambiance. Everything we ordered was delicious. Drew and Blayne had a locally-made microbrew which we had not seen anywhere else. Elizabeth and I had an Italian white wine that was quite good. All of the food was great as well. We would definitely recommend Ciudad Lounge to any visitors of Granada. It was not as cheap as most food in Nicaragua but it was as good as anywhere you might go in San Francisco or San Diego where the prices for the same thing would have probably been double.

After a fun last night out in Nicaragua, we woke up the next morning to have one last delicious breakfast of Gallo pinto before heading to the airport. We were there with plenty of time and our flight was delayed so we had a long wait. While waiting, Drew was chatting with his sister who was to be graduating medical school the coming Monday. We would have planned to go but she was sure she couldn’t get us tickets to the ceremony. So when she mentioned to Drew that she now could get tickets, she jokingly suggested that we come to London. Well seeing as we were heading home and feeling kind of bummed that our vacation was coming to a close, Drew took this as an opportunity to extend our travels a bit longer. By the time we were boarding our plane in Houston for San Francisco, we had plane tickets for four days later to London. The adventure continues!

As One Adventure Ends…

Another begins, or so the story goes. As many of you know we are now back in the United States from our amazing honeymoon in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. However, we decided that wasn’t enough and we are off to London in the morning to participate in my sister’s medical school graduation festivities in London. From there we will be off to the mainland of Europe to visit our friend Alouette whom we met in Nicaragua and then on to Munich to see one of my groomsmen, Michael. From there we will be off to Edinburgh, to see my favorite city in the world.

We have not yet finished writing about our adventures in Central America and will continue to write them as we travel and keep you up to date on our new adventures on the other side of the Atlantic, so stay tuned for more from Love and Backpacks!

Is This The Border Crossing?

Crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was probably the most stressful part of our entire trip. The buildings and signs do not look official at all so it is hard to tell whether anything is real. We’ve heard stories about tourists being ripped off by people telling hem they need to pay this or that fee or tax, and the people aren’t government officials. During the whole experience we really didn’t know what was what so we never felt comfortable.

We left La Isla de Ometepe on a Sunday afternoon ferry to San Jorge where we had to say our good-byes to Ryan, Alouette, Bruce, and Ian.  Ryan and Alouette were headed up to Granada for a couple of days before flying home (to Canada and The Netherlands, respectively).  Bruce and Ian were returning to Playa Popoyo where they are spending the rest of their summer vacation.  Drew and I were on our way to Costa Rica to find some volcanic hot springs to relax in.

From Left: Ryan, Bruce, Drew, Ian, Laura, Alouette.  On our way from Ometepe (in background) to San Jorge.
From Left: Ryan, Bruce, Drew, Ian, Laura, Alouette. On our way from Ometepe (in background) to San Jorge.

We arranged a taxi to drive us from San Jorge to Peñas Blancas, the border town on the Nicaragua side.  It was about a 40 minute drive and we negotiated the cost down to $20.  When we got to the border, the driver got us as close as he could and dropped us off.  There were no signs or anything indicating where we were supposed to go.  There was a long fence and some small houses scattered around but that was about it.  We started walking along the fence, looking for the entrance but came to a dead-end.  There was a woman near us so we asked her, in Spanish, “where is Costa Rica?”  It seemed the clearest way to get our point across.  She pointed back down the fence a ways and we saw an overhang where there was in fact a gate.  Somehow we had walked right past it without even noticing.

We went back to the gate, showed our passports, and walked through.  Now we were walking in a large open area where there were trucks and cars in line to go through.  We started walking one way, probably looking quite lost, when a truck driver got our attention and waved us another way.  We crossed the lines of cars and headed toward some buildings that were at least starting to look a little more official.  As we were walking, a man in a TransNica polo shirt came up to us and asked us where were headed.  When we told him, “Liberia, Costa Rica” he told us that we could take the TransNica bus there for $12 each.  That sounded good to us so we told him we would do that and he pointed us in the direction of the Customs & Immigration building where we needed to go fill out some forms and pay a fee.  We walked into the building and a woman, not in any uniform, said we need to pay her $1 each but wasn’t able to explain to us in English what it was for.  Drew was skeptical and refused to pay so we proceeded up to the windows where the uniformed officials were working.  The lady came up behind us and told him that we hadn’t paid the $1 and he said he couldn’t help us until we paid her.  Still not sure it was official, we went ahead and paid her, showed him our passports, paid him some more, and we were on our way.

We then went and waited by the bus we were going to be taking to Liberia.  We weren’t allowed to wait on the bus so we had to stand out front for awhile.  A large group of people had gathered around and then a TransNica employee showed up with a pile of passports and began calling names.  I realized that these people had already been on the bus, probably from Managua, and TransNica had taken care of the border-crossing logistics and now they were re-loading the bus.  After all the names were called, we were allowed on the bus as well and found a pair of seats in an exit row, which just like on an airplane gave us some extra leg room.  When everyone was on, we were on our way…for about 2 minutes.  Then it was time to stop and get off the bus again, with all of our stuff, to go through the Costa Rica Customs & Immigration office.  We had to go through a security checkpoint, just like at the airport, then go into the office to fill out another form and have our passports stamped.  At the same time, Costa Rica was playing Greece in the World Cup and the game was on TV behind the counter so the workers were being especially slow at helping us as they kept turning around to watch the game.  Finally we made it through and we were back on the bus.

The bus ride was surprisingly comfortable with free wi-fi and coffee service.  In about an hour we arrived in Liberia and were dropped off on the side of the highway in front of a gas station, McDonalds, Burger King, and Papa Johns.  The second I set my foot off the bus, the entire population around me burst out in cheers.  As exciting as my arrival was, they were in fact cheering because Costa Rica had won the game against Greece.  “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Tico, Tico!” was being chanted all around, everyone was wearing red, white, and blue, and Costa Rican flags were being flown from every car and building in the street.

Inside the Burger King and Papa Johns food court right after the game ended.
Inside the Burger King and Papa Johns food court right after the game ended.

 

The spontaneous parade in Liberia, celebrating Costa Rica's victory.
The spontaneous parade in Liberia, celebrating Costa Rica’s victory.
The parade continued.
The parade continued.

After a delicious lunch of Papa Johns pizza, we walked down the main street of Liberia and witnessed a remarkable spontaneous parade of cars that appeared to go on for miles.  We had planned to walk around to check out a couple of hotels in town but soon realized it was going to be difficult to get anywhere, not to mention it would be difficult to sleep with the party going on.  We decided to head out to the Hilton Garden Inn by the Liberia airport for a little bit of US comfort before renting a car the next morning and heading inland to Volcan Arenal.  More to come on that adventure in another post.

Five days later we were back at the Hilton Garden Inn for the Fourth of July to spend the night before trekking back to Nicaragua the following day.  When we arrived in Liberia on the Fourth we went to McDonalds as it seemed a fitting place to celebrate the USA.  After lunch we went into town to buy tickets for the TicaBus to Granada, Nicaragua for the next day.  I felt like we were on Amazing Race as I was running around looking for this small hotel where I was to buy the tickets and we were on a time crunch because we had to return the rental car in less than 30 minutes.  I finally found it and purchased two tickets for $27 each for the late afternoon bus.  Unfortunately they didn’t have availability any earlier than that, as we had hoped to get into Granada with at least half a day to spare.  We got the rental car back in time and enjoyed a relaxing evening by the pool.

The next day, we headed into town to wait for the TicaBus which would pick up in front of a hotel right next to the McDonalds.  The hotel had a restaurant so we sat down and had lunch while we waited for the bus.  Coincidentally, the Costa Rica vs. Netherlands game was going on at this time and unfortunately that game didn’t turn out so well for Costa Rica.  When the bus finally came a little after 4:00 (we were originally told they would come at 3:30), we hopped on and made our way toward the back to find a pair of seats.  It was looking like we would have to separate but then a man got up and, gesturing to a row of seats, was asking us something in Spanish.  It seemed as if he was offering the seats so we thanked him and sat down.  Another guy kept asking us something though and there was a lot of confusion before he walked away muttering, “gringos!”  Finally a couple of girls from Texas told us that our tickets had seat numbers on them and they had been asking us whether those were our assigned seats.  It was all so clear, now!  I looked at our tickets and sure enough, we were in the correct seats!  What a relief!

We were on our way north back to the Nicaraguan border, in the correct seats, though not quite as comfy as on the way down as we had much less room and no free wi-fi or coffee.  At some point along the way, a TicaBus employee handed us the Customs & Immigration forms we would need to fill out and then collected the entrance fee for Nicaragua.  From what we could tell, the fee is actually $10 but they charged us $14, probably as some sort of service fee.  At this point we thought we were all set for a smooth border crossing, as TicaBus was supposed to take care of everything for us.

When we arrived to the border, we got out on the Costa Rica side and went up to the counter with our forms all filled out and ready to go.  The man at the counter asked for our receipt and we said we had paid on the TicaBus.  We went back and forth, clearly confused, before he finally just walked us back out to the TicaBus guy to help us out.  The TicaBus employee explained that we needed to pay a $7 exit tax first and pointed us off in the opposite direction toward some old houses on the side of the road and said to go to the yellow one.  We hustled over there and went inside where there was yet another very unofficial looking counter and a woman asked for our passports and $8 each.  We said, “isn’t it $7?” and she said there was a $1 service fee.  We were so sick of this, we just paid it and rushed back to the other building.  We seemed to be the only ones who had to go pay this tax and everyone else was already lining back up to get on the bus.  We got back to the first counter, showed our receipts, and got our passports stamped.

Now it was time to get back on the bus to make the 2 minute drive over to the Nicaraguan side.  As we boarded the bus, the TicaBus employees collected one of the forms we filled out along with our passports.  They would be taking care of having everyone’s passport checked on the Nicaragua side.  Once there, we got off the bus again with all of our stuff and followed some other people up to where there was an extremely long table on which people were putting all of their bags.  We followed suit and put our backpacks on the table where we stood next to them and waited.  Apparently this is Nicaragua’s version of a security checkpoint.  Someone came by, collecting one of the many forms we filled out, looked at our bags, and gave us the nod of approval to go back and stand by the door to the bus.  We stood there for a very long time until finally the TicaBus personnel were back and began calling us by name, returning our passports to us as we boarded the bus.  We were finally on our way to Granada.  The drive was almost 2 hours and it was dark when we arrived, but we made it.  We were exhausted and so happy to be off the bus, ready to experience our last few days in Nicaragua.

The TicaBus at the border.
The TicaBus at the border.

 

All of the TicaBus passengers with their belongings lined up on the table.
All of the TicaBus passengers with their belongings lined up on the table.

 

"The Border"
“The Border”

 

Border crossing.
Border crossing.