The Three Capitals of Nicaragua

The Three Capitals

While in Nicaragua, we visit three of the country’s biggest and most famous cities: Managua, León, and Granada which have all alternately held the title of The Capital at some point in history.

Cathedral in Granada

Cathedral in Granada

León had been the capital of Nicaragua since colonial times, so when Nicaragua withdrew from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839, León became the capital of the new nation. But for some years the capital shifted back and forth between León and Granada, with Liberal regimes preferring León and Conservative ones Granada, until as a compromise Managua was agreed upon to be the permanent capital in 1858. These three cities- The Three Capitals of Nicaragua- have seduced us with their unique vibe and character, and getting to know them has been a pleasant and beautiful experience.

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Managua

Managua is our greatest surprise. Based on what we have read and heard, we expected to be robbed and killed there immediately. Instead, we discover a nice big city decorated with hundreds of permanent colorful light sculptures and even more grandiose temporary decorations for Christmas. Nicaragua’s capital turned out to have very little gang violence and to be much safer than its neighbors to the north- the capitals of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, and even safer than Costa Rica‘s capital San Jose, where we had the scariest experience on our way back from this trip.

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Managua is the largest city in Nicaragua and the second most populous city in Central America, after Guatemala City, located on the southwestern shore of Lake Xolotlán (Lake Managua), declared the national capital in 1852. In 1972 Managua was completely destroyed by a violent earthquake and most of its colonial buildings and cathedrals were reduced to dust. The Nicaraguan Civil War which followed in 1979 aiming to overthrow the Somoza regime, as well as the 11-year-long Contra War of the 1980s further devastated the city and its economy. To make matters worse, a series of natural disasters severely disrupted and stunted Managua’s growth. It was not until the mid-1990s Managua began to see a resurgence in investment and infrastructural development. Today, Managua’s downtown has been partially rebuilt and new governmental buildings, galleries, museums, apartment buildings, squares, promenades, monuments, boat tours in Lake Xolotlan, restaurants, night entertainment, and broad avenues have resurrected part of Managua’s downtown former vitality.

Managua lake promenade

Managua lake promenade

Downtown Managua is decorated with hundreds of permanent Light Tree sculptures

One building that barely survived earthquakes, disasters and civil wars, is the Old St James Cathedral, designed and shipped from Belgium in 1920 by Belgian architect residing in Managua Pablo Dambach who got the inspiration from St Sulspice in Paris. Santiago became the first cathedral in the Western Hemisphere to be built entirely of concrete on a metal frame. Santiago was extremely damaged during the 1972 earthquake, but in recent years, the restoration of the old cathedral of Santiago has appeared to be possible and is currently awaiting renovation.

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The Old Cathedral of Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

In the evening, we stroll around the promenade on the shores of the lake illuminated by colorful lights and the central plaza where the old earthquake damaged cathedral sits heavy and silent and wrinkled in the company of giant Christmas light statues. It is full of people and the breeze agitates the evergreen tops of the palm trees. Managua is charming and we feel a bit guilty for thinking so bad of her before getting to know her.

Plaza Managua

Plaza Managua

León

León is the second largest city in Nicaragua, after Managua, located along the Río Chiquito, 90 kilometres (56 miles) northwest of Managua, and 18 km (11 miles) east of the Pacific Ocean coast. It has long been the political and intellectual center of the nation and its National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) was founded in 1813, making it the second oldest university in Central America. León is also an important industrial, agricultural, and commercial center for Nicaragua, exporting sugar cane, cattle, peanut, plantain, and sorghum. The city has been home to many of Nicaragua’s most noteworthy poets including Rubén Darío, Alfonso Cortés and Salomón de la Selva.

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Church in Leon

León is rich in both architectural monuments and historical places. Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of León is a colonial baroque building built between 1747 and 1814 and the largest cathedral in Central America, as well as one of the oldest dioceses in the Americas. Because of its solid, anti-seismic construction its walls have endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of Cerro Negro volcano, and bombings during civil wars. In the cathedral’s crypts are buried several illustrious figures such as poet and diplomat Rubén Dario- the leading figure of the Modernism Poetic Movement of the late 1800s to early 1900s declared the Prince of Spanish Letters by literary figures of the Spanish speaking world.

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Cathedral of Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

The market, where the mini-bus from Managua drops us off in León, like many other markets in the world, is a noisy crowded place, alive with local colors, sounds and smells. As if all people have gathered here and everything is happening; the streets are buzzing with vendors, buyers and merchandise, small covered three-wheel taxis (capuneras) and horse carts. Giant papayas, leather saddles and boots, furniture, meat, candy. Strange mixtures of smells: fish and oranges, fried pork and ice cream. Thus greets us the madness of Leon, before we find the more peaceful plazas and narrow streets with colorful colonial two-story buildings and cathedrals at every corner.

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The market in Leon

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Big papayas

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Love is in the air

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Cathedral in Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

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Ivo and Maya in Leon

Granada

Granada, with its rich colonial heritage, seen in its architecture, is much more popular and touristy than Leon with even more beautiful freshly painted colonial buildings housing some world renowned restaurants and luxurious hotels with square inner yards. One evening, we gather with many of our Bulgarian friends living in Nicaragua in one of the restaurants lined along the streets. As everywhere else in the Latin American world, orders takes ages to arrive. In the meantime, we drink beer and exchange stories and wisdoms, while mariachi, beggars and street vendors offering sunglasses and local arts and crafts, constantly stop by our table to torment us, and is hard to get rid of them.

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Cathedral in Granada

Granada, founded in 1524, is historically one of Nicaragua’s most important cities, economically and politically, and one of the most visited sites in Central America. During the colonial period, Granada maintained a flourishing level of commerce with ports on the Atlantic Ocean, through Lake Nicaragua (a.k.a. Cocibolca) and the San Juan River. The city has been witness and victim to many of the battles with and invasions from English, French and Dutch pirates trying to take control of Nicaragua.

Granada’s economy continues to grow as it is becoming the national tourism hub. Though Granada remains Nicaragua’s sixth largest city, it is widely known for preserving some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country.

Granada’s restaurants have received international recognition by newspapers like the New York Times. In recent years, the city of Granada’s evolving culinary scene mixes local and international flavors, as well as supporting farm to table sustainability of local growers and producers. Granada’s economy continues to grow in big part because it is fast becoming a tourist attraction for its colonial architecture, as well as its ecological beauty and now as a food destination.

 

(with information from Wikipedia)

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Granada, Nicaragua

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  • Next: The Hermit and The Mountain

 

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Volcanos of Nicaragua

Volcanos of Nicaragua

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Rado, Maya and Ivo on the edge of a crater

Nicaragua- a small Central American country of 6 million inhabitants, has an impressive collection of volcanos- a chain of more than fifty volcanic cones of which 19 are full size volcanos, of which seven are active. Rising off a flat coastal plain just above sea level, they are striking to look at and more accessible for climbers and hikers. These fiery creatures of immense power and beauty- some sleeping peacefully, others rumbling, smoking, exploding- are one of Earth’s most awesome natural powers, and in Nicaragua we have the unique chance to get up close and personal with a few of those sleeping, rumbling and smoking giants with enchanted “M” names: Momotombo, Masaya, Maderas; to go for a swim in a crater lake, and to do some volcano boarding.

Momotombo

The news, as we arrive in the country, is that one of Nicaragua most picturesque volcanos- Momotombo has just erupted. A symmetrical stratovolcano rising 1300 meters above sea level towering over the shores of Lake Managua, Momotombo is Nicaragua most famous volcano emitting only ash for the past century, until now. A strong explosion followed by incandescent ejecta and spectacular lava flow occurred in early December, 2015 and a few more times while we are in the country with more explosions and ash emissions in January 2016. For us, the most incredible part of this event is that for the local people it is almost like something normal. Their reaction to the volcano spewing lava and ashes right next to their backyards is like that of people in other countries reacting to a minor snowstorm: not a big deal, it will pass.

Lava flows from the Momotombo volcano during an eruption as seen from Papalonal village, Nicaragua, December 2, 2015. According to the National System for Prevention, Mitigation and Attention to Disasters (SINAPRED), they will assess the situation constantly and will give their recommendations according to how the phenomenon develops. The Momotombo volcano last erupted 110 years ago, local media reported. REUTERS/Stringer EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE

Lava flows from the Momotombo volcano during an eruption as seen from Papalonal village, Nicaragua, December 2, 2015. According to the National System for Prevention, Mitigation and Attention to Disasters (SINAPRED), they will assess the situation constantly and will give their recommendations according to how the phenomenon develops. The Momotombo volcano last erupted 110 years ago, local media reported. REUTERS

Masaya

Only 25 km southeast of Managua, another volcano is constantly smoking, creating a white dense cloud over Nicaragua’s capital. This is one of the easiest volcanos to access on the planet. Our friend Rado takes us there driving on an asphalt road- right to the rim of the huge Santiago crater from where we can peek inside the depths of the earth. Surprisingly, in this toxic environment of sulfuric gazes live crater dwelling parakeets!

The Masaya Volcano National Park features a few cones and a crater lake. We hike to the rim of anther crater from where we can see the smoke of Santiago obscuring the sun- a mighty dramatic vista. Recently, the volcano has erupted in 2001 and in 2008 throwing huge rocks on the park’s parking lot and damaging a few cars. Strolling on the edge of an active volcano, bending over and looking inside a smoking rumbling crater is a unique almost spiritual experience, a bit scary and extremely exciting.

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Masaya

Maderas

Of course, we also visit Ometepe island formed by two volcanoes- Concepcion and Maderas- rising from Lake Nicaragua, and we climb one of them. In the ancient Nahuatl language of the Nahua Indians who first inhabited these lands, Ometepe means “two mountains” from ome (two) and tepetl (mountain).

The two volcanoes of Concepción and Maderas are joined by a low isthmus to form one island in the shape of a peanut with extremely fertile soil and an area of 276 km2, where coffee and plantains are produced for export. The two volcanos rise to 1400 and 1600 meters above the lake making Ometepe the highest freshwater lake island in the world, considered one of the Seven Wonders. But this is not the only reason why you should not miss it while visiting Nicaragua. Ometepe has a few friendly very tranquil and authentic little villages, where backpackers and tourists are welcome, excellent beaches and some fantastic kitesurfing spots, many hiking trails, rivers, waterfalls, thermal pools, various sleeping accommodations from hostels to luxurious eco-lodges situated among organic coffee plantations, and more.

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Concepcion volcano on Ometepe Island

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Coffee

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A man from Ometepe

We spend an entire day getting there, changing 4 crowded chicken buses from Managua to Granada to San Jorge and one last one to the ferry pier, from where we take the ferry.

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On the ferry

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Plantains for export from Ometepe

The ferry takes about one hour and a half and then- two more busses to get to our hostel near Maderas trailhead- El Jardín Del Buho, on the southeast half of Ometepe. It is a charming little hostel very secluded and picturesque, owned by an artist who has painted the large volcanic rocks in the garden, and his wife who is an anthropologist. We recommend this place to anyone who really wants to get away and relax undisturbed by the rest of the world on one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful and most appreciated by the tourists places- Ometepe Island. Only a dear, like a miraculous vision, may float out of the forest and sniff you while you are chilling in one of the hammocks on the porch, drinking coconut water in the shadow of two volcanoes…

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Our room

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A hairless Inca dog

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A deer

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A fearless deer

Early the next morning, we meet our guide and head to Maderas At 1400 m, as Concepción is active and considered very difficult and dangerous for hiking. Maderas is a medium difficult hike, where the difficulty comes mainly from the fact that it is always extremely muddy and slippery, walking through a dripping wet rainforest home of howler monkeys and many tropical birds. By the time we get to the top we are covered with mud from head to toes. It takes about 3 hours to climb the volcano and then descend in the crater, where the small crater lake is enveloped in dense mist. The trail is straight forward and we regret bitterly that we took a guide, after everyone told us, that people got lost and died and that guides are extremely strongly recommended. With our experience climbing mountains and volcanos, with a trail that has no alternatives, and with so many groups hiking Maderas every day, it is absolutely impossible to lose your way. Our guide, who is a good person and we have nothing personal against him, was completely useless, and most of the time just walked ahead of us in silence.

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The hike begins among plantain farms and volcanic rocks

 

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Maya found a giant dead bug

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Scrumptious

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Ivo used it as a hat

 

Apoyo Lagoon

 

Our next volcano experience is not with the volcano itself but the crater lake it created 20 000 years ago. Laguna de Apoyo is filled with beautiful blue ocean water (semi-salty) and is the biggest of the fourteen crater lakes throughout Nicaragua, situated near Granada. It is also a nature reserve and a popular weekend destination for the locals who like to swim, kayak, chill and organize picnics and BBQs on the shores and beaches around the laguna. One of those “locals” is our new friend Dinko Iliev who invites us to spend a day with his charming family and a few German friends at a private site on the lake owned by a friend of his. This becomes our most gourmet experience while in Nicaragua. When Dinko told us “We will BBQ some stuff and drink some beer” we didn’t realize he meant “a lot of stuff and lots of beer”. There are 4 or 5 different kinds of sausages, burgers, smoked chicken, and beef on the grill, plus salads and extras and a big cooler full of beer. And desserts. For many days after, we could still savor in our memory the exquisite meats prepared by Dinko by the lake…

While Dinko and Ivo are BBQing stuff with a beer in hand, Maya is playing with Dinko’s two blue-eyed super smart and cute sons, and I am chatting with the German guests and with Dinko’s beautiful Nicaraguan wife who turns out is a very adventurous person. And when it gets too hot we all chill in the strange volcanic waters of the Apoyo lagoon. Unforgettable.

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Apoyo lagoon

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Dinko’s family

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Cerro Negro

Last but not least, ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about Cerro Negro Volcano! Near the colonial city of Leon, in the middle of the Maribios Volcano Mountain Range, the small yet incredibly active Cerro Negro measuring only 450 meters continues to erupt with ferocity. It is Central America’s youngest volcano born in April 1850 with eleven heavy eruptions in the 20th century. But what Cerro Negro is even most famous for is its black volcanic ash slopes which have become the only place in the world where you can go volcano boarding!

We wake up early in the morning and pile up in Katia’s car- another new Bulgarian friend in Nicaragua. Katia owns and manages a few hotels in Managua and invites us for breakfast in one of her hotels before we head for Leon on our way to Cerro Negro. She is the funnest person you will ever meet and we have a blast listening to her hotel-stories while driving for an hour and a half to our destination. With us is another car- Rado and his older daughter Sophie (17) will be volcano boarding with us too! In Leon, we change vehicles. The agency organizing the Cerro Negro tours has 4×4 jeeps and we all fit in one of those, together with the driver and the guide. After another hour on a dusty dirt road, we arrive at the foot of a small black hill. The guide explains the rules, distributes small backpacks containing jumpsuits, protector glasses and construction gloves, and awards us with a long laminated board each. We start climbing up the black hill and the hike turns out to be the much more difficult and longer experience than the sliding down the slope. The black volcanic ash is soft beneath our feet and the wind as we go up becomes like a hurricane. We are climbing with the boards on our backs walking on the edge of a beautiful, smoking, mysterious crater. At times it is dangerous and impossible to continue. It is also super tiring and heavy. But we all make it to the top in less than two hours! From there we look down the western slope and the scary part begins. From up there the drop looks vertical and Maya is unsure if she is brave enough to actually sit on the board and slide down. I am terrified too, and our friend Katia, exhausted from the climb up is 100% sure she will not risk it. But Ivo, Rado and Sophie are here for action, ready to go! Somehow, Rado fits in the jumpsuit, Ivo installs a GoPro camera on his head, and Sophie is the first one to disappear down the black mountain! The guide convinces Maya and me that there is nothing really dangerous and explains once again how to control the thing, how to turn and how to slow down: “Just press your shoes down; your feet are your breaks!”

Here we go! Eventually, we all make it down alive. Rado, Sophie and Maya have perfect uneventful rides, Ivo manages to accelerate too much and turns over at the end (a fun GoPro video to watch), my board gets damaged right at the beginning and barley moves, so I am so slow, I have to push with hands and feet instead of stopping myself. Last arrives Katia WALKING! down the slope. The Walk of Shame, we joke.

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Cerro Negro

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Maya

Maya

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The Walk of Shame

DSC_0692

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Maya did it! Volcano boarding in Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

The volcanos of Nicaragua are what defines our visit to this beautiful friendly country. But there are a few other places and adventures to tell about, which are not less interesting: our visit to the colonial sites of Leon, Granada and Managua; a road trip to the north of the country, where we met an old hermit and a stone-artist; and kitesurfing on the great Lake Nicaragua.

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Welcome to Nicaragua

Welcome to Nicaragua

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The Nomadiks in Nicaragua

There are lots and lots of fantastic parks is Costa Rica with rich green forests, lakes and waterfalls, mountains and volcanos, beaches and lagoons. But after only a couple of weeks we start feeling claustrophobic in this small Central American country and a sort of quiet panic creeps in. Our wallets are getting progressively thinner, even if we avoid all the expensive activities and try to go for the cheapest or the free ones. Not only Nature has a pricy entrance fee in Costa Rica, but the cost of life in general is significantly higher than the rest of its Central American neighbors. The expensive food, transportation and accommodation is what is bothering us most. We soon feel like prisoners who want to escape, and head north.

After La Fortuna, we take the bus to Liberia, hoping to stay there for a couple of days and visit the famous park Rincon de la Vieja. But all cheap hostels are full, and all the other sleeping options are way too expensive. We learn this after spending the entire afternoon walking with our heavy backpacks from hostel to hostel all over town personally checking each and every one of them. We are faced with a dilemma:spend over $40 for a shitty room in a shitty hostel (in a shitty town by the way), and then join a tour to the park for $100 per person or more (it turns out there is no way to get to the park which is many kilometers away, unless you join a tourist group, and the fees once again are ridiculous) OR get the hell out of Costa Rica!

We jump in the bus to the last city before the border with Nicaragua and after a couple of hours we are in La Cruz. There, we meet a few hundred Cubans, who like us want to get the hell out of Costa Rica, but can’t! They are all over the place- in schoolyards and churches specially equipped with portable toilets, sleeping on mattresses on the ground, getting free emergency food from Red Cross trucks, and begging for money at the border crossing points. On the Nicaragua side,entire army battalions are stationed armed with AK47 making sure no one gets through. No one from the Cubans, that is, there is no problem for the rest of us.

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Red Cross truck distributing emergency foor to Cuban refugees in Costa Rica

It turns out, that thousands of Cubans are desperately fleeing Cuba and trying to get to the USA, after the warming up of the two neighboring countries’ relations. I thought, Cubans would be happy that the ridiculous embargo situation is about to end, but instead, they are terrified, that this will also mean new Cuban Refugee Policies in USA. Until now, Cuban citizens escaping Cuba and landing on United Stated soil were immediately granted special refugee status, USA citizenship and a handsome amount of dollars (10 thousand per person). But, as this is about to end because of all the positive changes, thousands of Cubans have fled to South America trying to reach USA by land as a last minute opportunity To get the immigration privileges before they change. For them, the only way to get to the USA by land and fast is to fly to Ecuador (thousands of miles away) and from there to take the bus to the States, crossing many borders by land: Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and finally- United Stated of America! That is the plan, and most countries have granted them right of transit passages, except of course Nicaragua, which is politically friendly with the Cuban government. So, as soon as the refugees showed up on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border sometime in November 2015, they were stopped and turned around by force. Today, many months later, they are still stuck in Costa Rica, waiting.

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The Nicaraguan army is guarding the border with Costa Rica

It’s late when we clear the border without any problems. We pay an EXIT fee to Costa Rica ($8 per person) as one last nasty surprise, and an entry fee for Nicaragua ($12 per person, if I remember correctly). We bargain for a taxi ride to the first city 20-30 km away and we get the first room in the first hostel for $25 a night.

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Mama Sara’s Hostel in San Juan

The morning finds us in the most charming picturesque beach-town in Nicaragua- San Juan del Sur. Suddenly- a new country! New people, a bit different than the previous ones, new money and new prices, much better than the previous ones, new food and new beer, not much more different or better than the previous ones but cheeper, and a new feeling of freedom and happiness. We roam the streets full of backpackers and surfers mostly from the States, we chill on the beach populated by locals and tourists, we climb the hill overlooking the vast bay home of many fishing boats and visiting yachts and we watch the sunset, eating ice cream, waiting for our friend Rado to come and pick us up.

Images from San Juan del Sur

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Street in San Juan

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View of San Juan Bay

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Calabash trees are everywhere in San Juan

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Lots of luxurious homes are in the San Juan area

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Rado is the same dude, who took us kitesurfing many times in Panama. He lives in Nicaragua since more than 30 years now, but because of his job, he is sometimes based in Panama for long time. His parents live in Managua in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and Rado occupies a small apartment on the same property when he is Nicaragua. They invited us to pitch our tent in their backyard, as they don’t have room for us inside the house, but a lot of space under the big mango tree in the backyard, and this is perfect for us!

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For the next two weeks we sleep free of charge in our tent under the shade of the mango tree enjoying the company of our friend who drives us around and shows us many of Nicaragua’s best places. We also enjoy enormously Rado’s parents company- Sneja and Dimitar Barzevi, who spoil us constantly with tasty homemade dishes- Bulgarian style.

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Breakfast with Barzev family

We are extremely happy and grateful to have the pleasure and privilege to spend Christmas and New Year with the Barzev family, in a very homy and traditional atmosphere- something we, the constant travelers away from home and parents miss a lot, especially during the holidays. And Maya finds here another “best friend forever”- Cathy is Rado’s 10-years-old charming daughter. The two girls are inseparable  in Nicaragua.

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Cathy and Maya in the tent

While in Nicaragua, we also meet many of Rado’s friends- other Bulgarians who live in the country since many years, and with them we share some unforgettable adventures.

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Meeting the Bulgarians of Nicaragua

Thanks to their hospitality and thanks to the country’s beautiful nature, biological diversity, and many interesting sites, Nicaragua beame one of our favorite destinations and we didn’t want to leave.

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Nicaragua, with 130,000 square kilometers territory and 6 million population, is the biggest country on the Central American isthmus. Famous for its many active volcanoes, the biggest island in a lake which has two volcanos on it (Ometepe Island), and one of the most beautiful colonial cities in the region (Granada), Nicaragua receives more and more tourists from around the world each year. It is much cheaper than neighboring Costa Rica and much safer than most of the countries in the region, with virtually no organized crime.

More photos from Nicaragua

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Ivo with Joro- a legendary soldier from the French Legion

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Christmas presents for everyone!

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Celebrating Christmas with barzev Family

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Rado

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New Year with Barzev Family

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Beer, music and dance with Barzev family- Happy New 2016!

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Road trip with Katia Angelova

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Kitesurfing with Rado and Dinko

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BBQ on the volcano lagoon with Dinco and his family

More stroies with details about our visit to Nicaragua are coming up! Stay tuned!

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