A New Year in Nicaragua


Hi friends! I hope 2018 is treating you all well. I know it has been for me and I started the year off by taking one of the most amazing vacations to Nicaragua. For those of you that don’t know, my family is from Nicaragua. Although I was born in California, I grew up in a Nicaraguan household so naturally their values and culture were passed down to me. Yet it took me 22 to years to decided to visit Nicaragua for myself, which I now regret. This was my second time visiting Nicaragua and I fell in love with it more than the first time. This place should be on everyone’s bucket list and if you need a tropical getaway, this is a wonder you shouldn’t miss out on.  Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and is Costa Rica’s neighbor so they are very similar. Nicaragua is extremely affordable and has so much to offer. I am still a stranger to this country but I have never felt so at home in a place that is still new to me.

Travel Tip: Research the language of a country before going. Even if you can’t speak it, write down common phrases to help you out on your trip. Being fluent in Spanish allowed me to have a more in-depth experience but knowing Spanish is not necessary to enjoy this tropical heaven. Just like most Millennial American travelers, I am looking for modern amenities, wifi, bomb food and perfect places for pictures.

Esteli

Esteli was my first destination on my itinerary for this trip. Esteli is Nicaragua’s 3rd largest city, which is known for its cooler weather, natural reserves and tobacco production. I have family that still lives in Esteli that I met recently so this place has a special spot in my heart.  Although it is not a big tourist hotspot, I still recommend stopping by Esteli if you’re ever traveling in Nicaragua and want to indulge in Nicaraguan culture in a lively city that still provides relaxation and greenery.

Lodging: Since I have family here, I skipped the hotels and Airbnb to save some money. Instead I was welcomed to Nicaragua with some of the best hospitality ever and it was from my own family. From getting my own room to sleep in, to waking up to freshly grounded coffee and daily housekeeping…was I staying at a full-service hotel or with family in their own home? Because this is what hospitality is about, making guests feel at home in your own home. What better way to start my trip than with being reminded why I love hospitality in the first place. For those looking to stay at a hotel, you can find clean hotels for under $50 a night. Unlike other destinations in Nicaragua, Esteli has limited hotel options and limited hot water.

Travel Tip: In third-world countries, resources like hot water and electricity can sometimes be very limited. When traveling to a third-world, be ready to be limited on resources that we are so blessed to have! Unless I boiled my own water, I took daily cold showers here. My showers were hard to enjoy but it allowed me to appreciate the hot water I take for granted every day back home in the LA. After a few cold showers I learned that the noticed the minerals from the water making my hair and skin so much softer and healthier! Less is more 🙂

If you’re ever in Esteli and need a place to stay, let me know. Staying with a local is one of the best ways to really have eye-opening experiences and engage in the daily life of a another culture. If staying with my family in Esteli taught me anything is that some of the people who have the least have the most love in their homes. I have never been showered with so much genuine love from people I only starting to reconnect with until I came to Esteli.

Food: Nicaraguan cuisine is one the reasons I wanted to visit Nicaragua in the first place. I grew up with homemade Nicaraguan cuisine so naturally it’s a comfort food to me. But I’m also a bit conscious about the food I eat anywhere so when I say the food is good here and trust me! Nicaragua has some of the most organic and sustainable food systems. No need for labels here, almost everything is farm to table and you can see it all around you! There is something here for meat eaters, vegans and everyone in between. Staying with family, I was lucky to have delicious homemade meals every day, which all included coffee and fresh juice. As for restaurants, my favorite place to eat in Esteli is La Casita – a hidden little gem that offers healthy, locally sourced options. I recommend their Muesli with their homemade yogurt and honey! This restaurant has outdoor seating in a green garden next to a cute bridge and family park. This is the perfect spot to grab a bite to eat and lounge outdoors. I found my favorite street snack in Esteli as well –  bag of fresh plantain chips for only 50 cents! For a sweet treat, I recommend Los Paleteros, located in el mercado. My favorite the coffee ice cream topped with dulce de leche and nuts. This little stand is a non-profit organization ran by college students to raise money for local business education. This place is amazingly delicious and helps a great cause.

Leisure: Esteli is a lowkey destination but it the perfect balance of jungle and urbanization. Like I mentioned before, Esteli is known for its natural reserves so I went to one called El Tisey. Surrounded by the aroma of pine trees, this is a great spot for a mellow hike and breathtaking views. Just down the road is El Jalacate Farm. This farm is special because it is an artistic masterpiece. There are stone carvings along the rocks of the mountain that were all hand carved by a man by the name of Don Alberto Gutierrez. Meeting Don Alberto and hiking amongst his art surrounded by the jungle was truly an amazing experience. Don Alberto welcomed us warmly and shared his story and art with us. According to Don Alberto, he knew he had a calling to create art when he had at the age of 9 because of a dream he had. His carvings are influenced by animals and Nicaragua’s history, and they are so beautiful! All he asks in return is for visitors to sign his welcome book but feel free to leave a voluntary donation! (Ps: Don Alberto has had over 45,000 visitors sign his book, pretty amazing for a guy living lowkey in the jungle!) Esteli is a busy town that is perfect for doing some outdoor shopping, visiting a historic museum or for relaxing at the park in front of a cathedral. (Did I mention it is really common for parks in Nicaragua to have free wifi? By far one of the most creative ways to get people outdoors.)

Overall, my stay in Esteli was great. I felt very engaged with the local lifestyle and I learned a lot about my Nicaraguan roots. I got to see both the city life and explore the jungle. I ate some of the best street food as well as the best homemade food here. From walking around from shop to shop to learning about art in the jungle, Esteli truly welcomed me with the best of both worlds.

Granada

Next stop on my road trip around Nicaragua was the colonial town of Granada. This is by far one of my favorite towns because it is always so lively and colorful. (Literally every wall is yellow, teal, pink, you name it. Perfect Instagram backgrounds everywhere!)

Lodging: Great hotel hospitality is one thing Granada does not lack. There are plenty amazing full-service hotels as well as clean hostels to choose from. For this trip, we stayed at Hotel Estrada, which is a boutique hotel located a block away from Granada’s central park. We were warmly welcomed complimentary Maracuya cocktails at check-in. Elsa, the front desk receptionist was extremely sweet and gave us insight on her favorite spots in the city. Our rooms were really clean and had a modern, Spanish vibe to it. What stood out to me the most about this hotel were it’s prime location, the relaxing jacuzzi bathtub in our bathroom, and the hotel’s sustainable practices. Breakfast is included with the stay, which is also a plus when saving money. I would recommend this hotel because of the modern amenities it has, how clean it is and how amazingly comfy the beds are! For about $80 a night, this room surpassed my expectations. Other hotels I highly recommend when visiting Granada is Hotel Patio Del Malinche. This hotel also offers great hospitality, free breakfast as well as a pool and poolside bar.

Food: The variety and quality of food Granada offers makes me love this town even more. Although many hotels include free breakfast, Kathy’s Waffles is one of the most popular breakfast spots in town. This perfect may be a tourist hotspot but it does not disappoint. Their menu offers a perfect balance between both American and Nicaraguan breakfasts. Both their Nicaraguan and American options are just as delicious. I recommend their blueberry pancakes and typical Nicaraguan breakfast plate with eggs, fried plantains, fried cheese and gallo pinto. (Gallo pinto is Nicaraguan’s version of rice and beans but cooked together. Their iced coffee was one of my favorites on my whole trip as well. Granada is also abundant in healthy dining options. Two of my favorite spots are Pitaya Bowls and The Garden Cafe. Pitaya Bowls’ menu offers smoothie bowls made from pitaya, cacao or coconut as well as variety of fruit smoothies and cocktails.  Garden Cafe offers a variety of healthy plates at a very inexpensive price. Their salads and juices are my favorite! Walk down la Calle de la Calzada and you will find a variety of places to eat from Pizza to Chinese and authentic Nicaraguan cuisine.

Travel Tip: The best way to get a real taste of what a country is like is to eat local cuisine and learn what a place is known for! I encourage researching the cuisine before traveling so you don’t miss out on new, delicious dishes. Although I’ve grown up with Nicaraguan cuisine all my life, there is a lot I have to learn about and try .I learned that Nicaragua has some of the most sustainable coffee in the world, which made drinking multiple cups a day taste better! Yay for eco-friendly caffeine!  I also discovered that Granada is known for their Vigoron (yuca, pork chicharron topped with cabbage, tomato and onions) made at a stand in the central park. I was skeptical about trying it at first but it was well worth it!

Leisure: When staying in Granada, you will definitely need more than a night’s stay to enjoy all the city has to offer. From visiting different cathedrals filled with history to riding colorful horse carriage around town learning about local history and landmarks, Granada has something for everyone. I highly recommend taking a boat ride around the Islets De Granada, which are little islands in the lake of Granada. You even get to meet and touch a monkey who lives on an island with other monkeys. This was an activity both my mom and I enjoyed a lot. For chocolate lovers, there is the ChocoMuseo, which offers free chocolate tastings and history on cacao making. I am not a big chocolate person but learning about cacao making was really interesting. Another great thing about Granada is their mercado. This outdoor market is so lively and has everything you can think of! I highly recommend browsing through the mercado even if it seems intimidating at first. They have have amazing deals so it is well worth it. I bought 3 pairs of leather shoes for $15 and they are so well made!

Travel Tip: When traveling to other Hispanic countries, explore their markets. Shopping at a local market is usually in expensive. You’re very likely to find authentic, high quality fashion and products at a bargain rather than purchasing the imitated and overpriced version back in the U.S. I found that leather products, hammocks, and jewelry were worth buying here.

When I visit Nicaragua again, I will make sure to stop by Granada again. There something so romantic and lovely about this town that automatically puts me in a better mood. This city has wonderful hospitality all around and feels very safe throughout. It is a popular tourist destination that stays true to its Nicaraguan roots. The town is very lively both day and night, which is great for both early morning risers and night owls. There is an abundance of hotel,food and activity options, which is great for those traveling here for the first time.

San Juan Del Sur & Playa Maderas

All of Nicaragua is absolutely stunning but San Juan Del Sur is the place that really made me fall in love with this country (and also the reason why I have started looked into real estate here!) Where do I even begin? San Juan Del Sur is a popular tourist destination on the southern west coast of Nicaragua, close to the border of Costa Rica. SJDS is a developing beach town filled with international surfers, young travelers ready to relax and party, as well as families on vacation. The vibe in this town is very laid-back and has a wide variety of people, both locals and foreigners. Just a 15 minute car ride up north and we stumbled upon Playa Maderas, the best surf spot in the whole country. What this surf town had in store for me was more than I could ever imagine.

Lodging: Being one of the most popular destinations in Nicaragua, SJDS offers a variety of full-service hotels, clean hostels and Airbnb. Whatever way you’d like to stay, this beach town can definitely accommodate. For this trip we stayed at Villa de Palermo, which I highly recommend over and over to anyone. These Spanish-inspired two-story villas come with a full kitchen, walk-in closets and some of the most stunning views of San Juan Del Sur’s Beach. For less than $100, this hotel went beyond our expectations. These villas are perfect for families, groups of young travelers or even couples. Not only is the property very-well kept and have all the amenities necessary for your stay, but the hospitality here is truly amazing. We loved it so much here that we decided to extend our stay last minute. Although other hotels were completely booked, the receptionists at Villa de Palermo, Danielka and Esperanza were extremely accommodating and were able extend our stay without even having to move villas! They even gave us the same discounted rate, when the rate for the night was actually a lot higher. The way this situation was handled not only made our stay a lot smoother but we really got to enjoy San Juan Del Sur for another extra day while staying in a lovely villa. Another similar hotel I recommend is Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa , which offer similar full-service villas  and is just down the street. The location for both these hotels is only a 5 minute taxi ride down to the beach. If I ever work out of the country in hospitality, it will be here because the atmosphere of the hotels and town are so warm and lively.

Food: If there’s one thing SJDS is lacking is more authentic Nicaraguan cuisine. Yet, this place does not fall short of amazing, delicious food. From breakfast to dinner, from coffee to cocktails, SJDS has a wide variety of food and definitely some of the coolest dining concepts. If I could only pick one place to here, I would choose Dale Pues in a heartbeat. Everything about this restaurant is a 10/10 – the food, aesthetic and service  They offer free coffee in the mornings and wifi, which is a life saver for someone who isn’t awake until I have my coffee. Some of my favorites here are their breakfast burrito (that has gallo pinto in it for a twist, YUM!), the Tommy Loco wrap (the jalapeño mayo with the fries are absolutely fire!) and the black bean burger. Their fresh maracuya juice and red sangria compliment any dish perfectly. Dale Pues was so fresh and flavorful we came back to eat here multiple times during our stay. If you’re looking for quality fast food, Taco Stop is place to go. This place reminds me of a Nicaraguan version of Chipotle. I’m not exactly sure how this place is considered fast food because the quality of the ingredients are so fresh. Their menu offers tacos, burritos, bowls and quesadillas. Also guac is only 25 cents here so stock up! Another favorite spot of mine in Simon Says, which is a healthy smoothie bar. This place is so visually intriguing and is the perfect place to lounge, read a book and gaze at art in a garden while enjoying an ice cold smoothie. This place definitely has a hipster vibe with it and is covered in art, positive affirmations and greenery. As for desserts, my absolute favorite spot is Dia de las Donuts,  which has some of the best donuts I’ve ever tried in my life and I’m a huge donut lover. Something about the way the dough makes these donuts stand out so much. If I could have these back home, it would definitely be local donut spot. All the donuts I tried were so delicious I couldn’t pick a favorite (Make sure to stop by early when they are freshly baked, they run out quick!) If there’s anything else I like is drinking craft beer. The San Juan Del Sir Cerverceria is a must go-to for craft beer lovers. This place is known for tropical fruit craft beer brewed on-site. Out of all the beer flights, my favorites were the Passionfruit Ale and their Pitaya Sour Ale. I am not fan of sour beers but the pitaya in the beer balanced it out perfectly. The tropical fruits found in Nicaragua are changing the craft beer game and I am very excited to see this industry develop more here.

Leisure: If you’re going to visit SJDS, I recommend staying a couple of nights because there is a lot to see and do here. SJDS is the perfect blend of beach, jungle and warm weather, which makes it the perfect spot to go out and adventure. From zipping in the jungle to horseback riding on the beach or riding a 4×4 , there is something to get everyone outdoors and moving. Hiking up to  El Mirador de Cristo was one of my favorite outdoor activities. This little hike isn’t the longest but is steep and so worth it. The Jesus statue has the best view of all SJDS coastline as well as the Costa Rican border. I recommend coming here early in the morning or later in the afternoon for sunset to avoid the heat. Although SJDS has its own beach it is not the best for swimming or surfing compared to nearby beaches like Playa Maderas is only a 15 minute drive away. This place is surfer’s paradise and I recommend taking a whole day just to come get away for a day of relaxation on the beach. The water is clear and warm surrounded by soft sand. This beach is more isolated, which makes it a hidden gem. The beach was so beautiful here I spontaneously decided to take my first surf lesson here. Thanks to Mauricio, one of the locals at the surf shop, I was able to stand up and ride the waves on my board. This was the perfect place for my first lesson because the waves are good, water is warm and the sunsets are unbelievable. Getting my first surf lesson here will always be a memorable experience. For those who aren’t as adventurous, SJDS has great spas to unwind at like Gabby’s Spa.  For those who love a good dance party, Hostel Pachamama is the place to go for Sunday Funday Pool Crawl. There’s everything for something for all ages. There is so much yet to be discovered and this town is the perfect place for self-discovery and unwinding in a tropical oasis.

If there’s one place I will for sure go back to in Nicaragua it is San Juan Del Sur and the neighboring surf beaches. I felt The hospitality, food and experiences I had here made it so hard to leave. I dream of having a house here or my own little hotel and restaurant one day. I hope that everyone could come visit this therapeutic jungle for themselves.

Leon & Matagalpa

The next stops on my trip were short but amazing. Driving up back North after SJDS, we headed to Leon and Matagalpa. Leon is Nicaragua’s second largest city after the capital. Similar to Granada, Leon is lively colonial town with beautiful architecture although it is not as colorful. Leon is known for its 8 volcanos, hot weather and its historic cities. On the other hand, Matagalpa is a green, mountainous area, with lots of natural tourism such as lakes, natural reserves and waterfalls. Matagalpa is known for their cooler weather and coffee production. I decided to visit both of them spontaneously and I a glad I did because I discovered another beautiful side of Nicaragua.

Lodging: If there’s anything I could change from this trip, it would be extending my stay in Leon. I only stayed in Leon for 1 night and I felt like it was not enough to full immerse myself in all the historic stories this city has. For hotel accommodations in Leon, we stayed at Hotel Posada del Doctor, by accident though. We accidentally booked the wrong night for another hotel, Azul Hotel & Restaurant. Although they were not able to accommodate us because they were completely full, they were extremely sorry they could not help us and recommended the hotel we ended up staying at. The hotel was intimate and had views to a little garden with a fountain. The rooms were clean, the showers had water but I felt like it wasn’t the most visually pleasing and with more amenities. Yet for being a last minute accommodation at 10:30pm, this hotel was good for a night’s stay and about $80. Yet I would recommend to go elsewhere for this price range because I know there’s hotel with better quality properties. I will say that the hospitality here was really great. The receptionist was extremely attentive and took the time to get to us a bit better. On the other hand, no accommodations were needed since we took a day trip here before returning back to Esteli. Yet, if you’re ever in Matagalpa for a night, I have heard great thing about Hotel San Jose, so it should be worth checking out. Booking more hotels will be my goal for next trip so I can explore the hospitality in both Leon and Matagalpa completely.

Food: For breakfast in Leon, we ate at El Desayunazo, which offers great service and service Things that stood out to me was their various vegetarian and vegan options on the menu as well as how large their food portions are. I ordered their breakfast burrito, which was a little spicier than I was expecting but it was still bomb. Their homemade potatoes are to die for. Other spots worth checking out are Libelula Coffee Shop, for some strong and freshly grounded coffee in the morning. During our day trip to Matagalpa, we ate at Selva Negra Ecolodge & Restaurant. This place is truly worth visiting, even if it is just to eat like us. Their restaurant has a farm to table concept and offers a variety of sustainable Nicaraguan and American cuisine. The restaurant overlooks a man-made lake in the middle of the jungle surrounded by tall trees and butterflies. Hotels food is usually overpriced so the food was more expensive than I thought it would be. Their warm Atol with cinnamon is a must try.

Leisure: If there is one thing Leon is known for is its 8 volcanoes, some which are still active. One of the most amazing things about Leon is that it is the only place in the world where you can volcano board down el Cerro Negro. Wow, if there’s any new adrenaline to experience in Nicaragua, it is sliding down 726 meters of volcano. Although it sounds dangerous, it is completely safe and can be done by younger travelers and older ones too. (My mom volcano boarded and she is usually not the bravest when it comes to adrenaline rushes). For $25, transportation, snacks, water, gear and board are provided. Our tour guide was amazing and gave us so much insight on the history and cool facts about Leon and the volcano all throughout our hike up the volcano. The hike lasts about an hour and is a wonderful workout. The view from the top of the volcano is unreal and sliding down the volcano itself is one of the most unique and fun experiences ever. If being too adventurous isn’t your thing, Leon has lots of historic museums and the Leon Cathedral, which is worth visiting. This cathedral has all white floors so they make you go barefoot. Even if cathedrals aren’t your thing, visiting this one is worth going for a cool picture on the roof. It has a view of the whole city and multiple of Leon’s volcanoes. On the other hand, Matagalpa is filled with natural outdoor activities. My favorite place is Ecolodge La Cascada Blanca. This ecolodge is a hidden gem with a beautiful waterfall and greenery. I got to see my first real life sloth here and it was the cutest thing ever! The entrance fee is only $2 too! Another cool place to visit while in Matagalpa is Selva Negra, which I mentioned before. Aside from being an ecolodge, this place is the perfect place to walk around in the middle of nature and enjoy a small hike.

My 2 weeks in Nicaragua were absolutely amazing but it was too short. This beautiful country has so much natural beauty and adventures to experience. This vacation is one I will always remember and I know it won’t be my last visit to Nicaragua. I was able to reconnect with my roots and nature, which allowed me to see a different perspective of the world. It was the perfect detox from real life back home and allowed me to understand that less is more and some of the most loving people come from nothing. Although third-world countries get a bad rep by being called “unsafe”, don’t believe that! Nicaragua is really safe and the people are some of the sweetest and hardworking people I have ever come across. For anyone looking for a tropical oasis with both adventure, relaxation and greenery, this is the place to go. Nicaragua is not only a beautiful destination, but also extremely affordable. $1 U.S is $30 in Nicaragua so saving money is easy when traveling here

If you ever decide to discover Nicaragua for yourself, please let me know! I have connections and can refer you additional places to stay, eat and activities to do.

Oh Nicaragua there is so much more I could write about you but I will save it in my heart forever. Thank you for allowing me to grow, to discover new places and things about myself, to spend the best time with my mom and for reconnecting me with my Nicaraguan side. It’s not a goodbye, it’s a see ya soon.

Until my next adventure,

Em

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