Welcome to the third instalment of our Central American overlanding adventure. This week we set off from colonial Granada to swim in volcanic lagoons, go surfing in Nicaragua on the pacific coast and head to lively and liberal Leon.
From Granada to the coast
Arriving in Granada we get our fist taste of inner city Nicaragua. It’s a busy, enclosed city, buzzing with street hawkers selling pretty much anything they can get their hands on. There are plenty of hostels here, but it turns out some of them are better than others. Mentioning no names, £8 a night is still too much to stay in a dirty, cramped, windowless cell. Maybe when I was 18, but these days it’s worth spending a few quid more for some natural light.
Granada is a grid of colourful, single-storey colonial houses, complete with inner courtyard gardens. The main drag runs parallel to the cathedral towards the lake. It bustles with bars and restaurants, although it has to be said it feels a little like imported hospitality. The city is home to no less than three Irish pubs.
However, there’s still enough of the ‘real’ Nicaragua in the local market and surrounding streets to be interesting. But some of the clubs and bars down by the grubby lakeside look a little intimidating, to put it politely.
Swimming in a volcanic crater
From Granada we travel to Laguna Apoyo. It’s a colossal lake sitting inside an extinct volcanic caldera. It looks exactly like something from a Bond film (one of the fun, camp 70s ones, not the more modern muscular variety). Staying at the tropical garden hotel of SelvAzul, we have our own private beach and a wooden pontoon out on the water to catch some sun.
The mineral rich water is warm and clean, and this has to be the most incredible place I’ve ever been wild swimming. Surrounded on all sides by steep, jungle covered slopes, it’s like you’ve travelled to the Lost World.
Some of the colonial villages around the lagoon, including Catarina and the busy market town of Masaya, are well worth a visit. It’s full of the usual artisanal tat that tourists lap up, but I have to say that some of the pottery and leatherwork here is pretty damn impressive. The kind of stuff you’d pay a fortune for back home in some overpriced hippy boutique in Brighton’s North Laine.
Pacific coast surfing in Nicaragua
We’ve agreed to meet our next hosts somewhere on the outskirts of Managua. Part of me wants to explore deeper into the Nicaraguan capital, where some 2.5 million people (more than a third of the population) live. It’s been described to us as ‘slums surrounding canals full of rubbish’, and while not that bad it’s not really supposed to be worth a visit.
We’re picked up by our genial host Alex, from Surf Tours Nicaragua, and driven the hour out to their surf camp on the beach in a small village called Miramar. The surf houses are set right on the sand, in its own little compound complete with pool and raised cabana.
If there’s a better spot to watch the sunset in the whole of Nicaragua I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. The next day, resident surf dude and all round splendid human being Charlie takes us out along with our fellow guest Katya. Somehow Charlie manages not to laugh (out loud, at least) as we get wiped out by wave after punishing wave.
But with a little help, some gentle encouragement and I suspect some cheeky pushing at critical moments, we start to get the hang of it, popping up and catching some waves. Genuine (unsteady) evidence below.
Yoga, baseball and freedom fighters in Leon
Charlie also happens to be a crack yoga teacher, so we soothe our battered bodies with a spot of sunset stretching. The following morning, two of the camp’s locals are playing baseball (the national sport) so we head out to cheer them on in a big derby match against the neighbouring village.
The boys look majestic in their shiny and pristine uniforms and it’s a lot of fun mingling with the (ever so slightly) inebriated locals. We also enjoy a night out in town in the liberal hub of Leon and visit the Sandinista Museum on the main square.
Our guide, Javier, is an actual veteran of the revolution and a rock solid legend. He relates his own harrowing experiences of how, at the age of just 18 (many were even younger still), he and his comrades took up arms against the American-backed dictator and all-round scumbag Anastasio Somoza.
Taking on tanks and rocket launchers with pistols and ancient rifles takes some guts and it’s hard not to have total respect for what Javier, his comrades, and all Nicaragua went through to get to this point. But you know what, it was worth it. This is a wonderful country and we shall be sad to leave.
To book a trip with Surf Tours Nicaragua visit: www.surftoursnicaragua.com