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Nicaragua has to be the most underrated of Central American countries. Whenever I asked other cyclists how they found Central America they would rave about Costa Rica and Guatemala. They might allude to the dangers of Honduras and El Salvador. They would often decline to mention Nicaragua altogether. I enjoyed the cycling here. Out in the sticks Nicaragua offers some lovely backroads, with little traffic and small villages. There are old colonial cities with a combination of European architecture and Nica culture. Lots of bustling markets and lively plazas. The people are hospitable and friendly and despite being one of the poorest counties in Central America it is also one of the safest.
I arrived from Costa Rica after another painless border crossing at Penas Blancas. I was feeling a little beaten up after wiping out on a dirt road on my last day in Costa Rica taking evasive action from an oncoming truck. I picked myself up, dusted myself off and carried on but you don't shrug off crashes so well when you are in your forties. I was feeling a little old but soon there was a cool sea breeze and the glorious Lake Nicaragua on my right and my spirits rose. At the center of the Lake, actually a freshwater sea, is the Isla Ometepe. It is an absolutely unique place. An island consisting of two adjoining volcanoes situated in the middle of the largest lake in Central America. I arrived at the lively market town of Ricas and took the boat across. Arriving on the island you immediately sense a change in atmosphere, a slowing down of pace. The roads are empty. The peace and quiet is absolute and there are lots of opportunities for side trips, be it to look for petroglyphs or kayak amongst the mangroves. You can do a 100km figure-eight around the island and there are abundant ideal camping opportunities on the shores of the lake. I wouldn't go for a swim though. The only freshwater sharks in the world are to be found in Lake Nicaragua.
Twin volcanoes on the Isla Ometepe
Back on the mainland I continued along the shores of the lake to the town of Granada. The oldest colonial town in Nicaragua. Revered for its colonial architecture, palms rise amidst a sea of red tile roofs along cobbled stone streets. Charming but a nightmare to cycle on. The back streets of Granada are a great place to wander around aimlessly. It is home to an array of appealing eateries, museums, galleries, markets and an incredible amount of tourists. I didn't last long. Everything seemed to be a little too geared up to the foreigner. All the English menus and bars full of expats watching the Denver Broncos had me struggling to feel the old world charm. I was going to stay a few days but after an essential trip to the launderette I was glad to get back on my bike. I could have gone on to the other celebrated colonial town of Leon but I'd had my fill in Granada. I was keen to escape the heat and humidity at sea level so I headed north east up into the mountains.
Early morning in Granada
This was a good move. The mountains that divide the Pacific and Atlantic sides of Nicaragua are beautiful and quiet. A great way to get a look at authentic village life in Nicaragua. The roads are not always paved but eminently rideable. The mountains are not especially high, you will do well to get above 2,000m, but they are high enough to escape the heat and camp comfortably. You won't get dramatic, rugged mountain scenery with snow capped mountains. Instead you get a sea of green, cloud forests and a healthy supply of volcanoes. Away from the tourist trail the locals were curious and hospitable. A couple of times I was invited into their homes and plied with rice and beans. One lady gave me her family history, assuming I understood her rapid fire Spanish, whilst plying me with a local cacao-based drink which was foul. I had to concentrate not to grimace after every sip. I took dirt roads through sleepy villages towards Matagalpa before a big climb up into the clouds and down to Jinotega. The highlight of Nicaragua were the meandering roads north east from here towards the Honduras border. Peaceful rolling roads through forests teeming with life. It was a great end to an enjoyable couple of weeks.
Up in the hills north east of Jinotega
All sorts. Tarmac. Dirt. Cobble stones. It is easy to keep it strictly tarmac if you stick to the main roads but almost all the minor roads are dust and sometimes a little bumpy.
Generally pretty easy. A little too hot for me down at sea level. Camping on Isla Ometepe I was saved by the sea breeze. Nicaragua is a great place for star gazing. Out of a total of 88 constellations found in the night sky, 86 of them can be seen clearly in Nicaragua. You will do well to find camping gas anywhere.
No visa required. Rock up at the border and you will get 90 days. No need for proof of onward travel. No surprise fees. Border crossings were quick and painless. I crossed at Penas Blancas from Costa Rica and at Las Manos on the way to Honduras.
Basic bicycle shops in all the big towns but quality spare parts will be difficult to come by.
Nicaraguan food is a mixture of Creole and Caribbean food. Nicaraguans incorporate fresh and locally grown food into their dishes, and often cook a lot of corn, seafood, rice, beans and peppers.
I found Nicaragua to be the cheapest of the Central American countries. Food is cheap, as it is everywhere in Central America, but here you can also easily find accommodation for less than $10.
When to Go:
Nicaragua's dry season begins in November and ends around April. At this time the majority of places enjoy dry, sunny days and mild temperatures. This makes it the ideal time for cycling.
I found Nicaragua to be a wholly safe place. There have been a few violent protests recently but no worse than Paris. The people are unhappy with the government's current strategy of repression but tourists are welcome and well looked after.
Basic but great value little place in Masaya. Ricardo and his family were wonderful hosts.https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5766265
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