Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in
Managua - Juigalpa - Leon - Grenada - Ometepe Island - San Jose - Tortuguero - Cartago - Monteverde - Manuel Antonio - Panama City
We arrived in Managua late in the night, so we took a taxi from the airport straight to the hotel we had booked ahead.
We tried to wake up early, but after the long flight, all we could manage was 8 am. We ate breakfast (famous gallo pinto, the first time of many ahead, so we enjoyed it a lot) and went to the National Theater to buy tickets for the evening show.
The Theater is located next to the old cathedral, so we spent some time visiting the church from outside (the building is in bad condition thus closed).
Then we took a taxi to Mercado el Mayoreo, where we caught a bus to Juigalpa (about 3 hours).
In Juigalpa we told the driver to stop near the museum. They will know what museum you mean, although to get there you still need to walk some more (about 5 blocks up the hill from the main road).
These of you who read our blog know that Chris is an anthropomorphic stone figures freak. Which means he finds them everywhere we go. In Nicaragua, a place he had dreamed of visiting was a small museum in Juigalpa (Museo Arqueologico Gregorio Aguilar Barea), featuring a significant collection of human shaped, pre-Columbian stone carvings. They were fascinating (see our photos). Another part of the museum exhibits the weirdest artifacts we've ever seen: genetically deformed animals (like a two-headed calf), unrecognized by anyone hybrid of fish and bird (?) (the poster-board called it el diablo) and even a human cyclops baby preserved in a big jar.
Besides the museum, there was not much to see in Juigalpa, so we went back to Managua. We took a bus from the main road, near the spot of our departure, but it was really crowded (we had to stand for almost an hour before some of the seats got released), so maybe the better idea would be to catch it one stop earlier, from the bus station.
We arrived in Managua right for the play in the theater. Unfortunately, it was all dialogues, all in Spanish, and not at all in the main hall (we heard it's beautiful, but the National Theater was closed for visitors, so by buying the tickets we hoped to see it). Also, the actors started to engage the public, and since Chris's Spanish is limited and mine non-existent, we had to evacuate ourselves ASAP.
At 8 am we climbed to Loma de Tiscapa Hill, we paid an entrance fee and went straight to the Canopy Tour office to be the first for their famous zip lining. It appeared they open at 9 am, so we wandered around the hill, admiring the view (beautiful!) until the crew arrived. The zip lining over the crater lake was indeed spectacular, and we both had lots of fun.
At 11:30 we took a minibus to Leon from the bus station near the University (1,5 hour, the bus had AC).
In Leon, we wandered in the old town. We also visited an excellent museum - Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz - Gurdián. Some call it the best contemporary art museum in Central America and they might be right.
We wanted very much to visit the roof of the cathedral in Leon, but it was open only from 8 am to 12.
In Via Via Hotel we paid for the volcano boarding for the next day. We looked for some other tour operator, but since we were not able to find them, we took the one from Via Via.
At 8:15 am we got picked up from our hotel and went to the foot of the volcano. From there we carried the boards to the top.
The boarding itself was great, although not necessarily with the tour operator we had chosen (we write about our experience here).
We came back to the hotel at 1 pm and hurried to take a minibus to Managua (1,5 h), where we changed to another minibus, to Granada (you have to cross a street, the driver will point the place from where the buses to Granada leave; again 1,5 h, none of the minibusses had AC). We reached Granada at 6:30 pm.
Our hotel was located near La Merced church, so after 5 pm we climbed the church tower (after paying a small fee) and admired a spectacular sunset over the town.
After sunset, we strolled around and visited a few nice restaurants. We also booked the kayaking tour and zip-lining activity for the next day.
At 8 am we got picked up from our hotel and driven to the lakeshore, where Inuit Kayak Bar & Restaurant is located. In the restaurant, we were given the kayaks, and together with a guide, we started our amazing 2,5 h trip.
After the trip, we were picked up from the restaurant and brought back to the hotel.
We still had some time to wander around Granada and eat something before our next adventure. At 1:30 pm the car picked us up again and took us to the Mombacho Volcano Zip Line Tour, where we spent a fantastic time with their 8 zip-line platforms and 3 hanging bridges.
On the way back we spotted a beautiful cemetery, Cementerio Municipal, located maybe 1 kilometer from the center of Granada. Many of the tombs were decorated with the stone sculptures. Unfortunately, we had no time for it, but those of you who like elaborate necropolises should consider a visit.
The rest of the day we spent doing our favorite thing - just hanging out in cafes.
We chose perfect timing for visiting Central America - Easter. As almost everybody is Catholic here, the celebrations were splendid.
Today was Palm Sunday, so we asked around about the processions. The biggest one was supposed to be organized at Saint Francis Church, at 9 am. We were there a few minutes before and waited until the end of the mass when the procession left the Church. And indeed, it was impressive. The procession moved slowly on the streets of Granada, so we had time to overtake everyone and enter the Cathedral. It is possible to climb the tower of the Cathedral (after paying a small fee), and we hoped to take good photos from above. It was even better - the procession ended in the Cathedral, and we had a great view on everything from the height.
Around noon we came back to the hotel and waited until 12:45 for our shuttle bus to San Jorge (it was supposed to arrive at 12). We decided to pay more and take a shuttle bus (a tourist bus) instead of the public transport because we thought it would be quicker and more comfortable. It wasn't. The minibus was old and ramshackle, with no AC. It was packed with tourists who were delivered to various places on the way (or not really on the way, like Mombacho Volcano Zip Line), so we arrived in San Jorge only after 2 pm.
We managed to catch a big ferry to Moyogalpa at 2:30 (the boat name was Che Guevara, and she was not mentioned in the official timetable). We arrived in Moyogalpa at 4 pm and found some hotel near the ferry port.
After that, around 5 pm, we took a rickshaw to Punta Jesus Maria to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen.
At 8:30 am we went to the "bus station" near the entrance to the ferry terminal to catch a public bus to Altegrazia. The bus station is merely a spot where the buses stand when they wait for passengers. We were told they would leave every hour but the one at 8:30 didn't show up (or it had left earlier, and we missed it). We had to wait till 9:30 for the next one. It was extremely crowded, and it stopped every 10 minutes.
We reached Altegrazia at 10:50 and photographed the pre-Columbian stone figures located near the Catholic church, opposite the bus stop (yes, Chris wouldn't miss them!).
Then we took another bus, to Merida, and told the driver to drop us near Ojo de Agua (about 20-minute bus ride). From the main road, you need to walk a few hundred meters to the entrance, where you pay the fee. It is a huge stone swimming pool with cool water, surrounded by the lush greenery. It is very crowded but has its charm. We stayed there for 2 hours.
After that, we decided to visit the nearby beach in Santo Domingo. We walked, although it meant 2 kilometers in full sun. The road was pleasant, though, and very picturesque, with the volcanos towering over the trees.
Playa de Santo Domingo was beautiful. If we could stay longer in Ometepe, we would surely choose a hotel somewhere nearby. The lake seemed to be the sea, the waves intensified this impression. We loved it. Unfortunately, we had to come back.
From the people on the main road, we learned that the next (and the last) bus would be passing by at 5 pm, but it would go to Altegrazia, not Moyogalpa. And that from Altegrazia we wouldn't get any public transport to Moyogalpa today. We decided to hike, although normally we don't do it. We managed to catch a car going to San Jose del Sur. The driver dropped us at the bus stop where we caught the last bus to Moyogalpa.
In our hotel, in the middle of the night, the electricity went off, and the AC stopped working. We woke up drawing in our own sweat (I don't know how people can choose rooms without AC in Ometepe. No matter the additional cost - find a hotel with the decent AC, it's worth any price!). We opened the windows, but the only change was the insects flying inside and eating us alive. The air was equally still outside.
We were not able to sleep anymore, so we packed our bags and went to the ferry terminal earlier than planned.
A day before we tried to figure out what time the first ferry leaves Moyogalpa. Without any success - everyone shared a different information. In the official timetable, there was one at 6:30 am, but when we arrived in the port we learned it's not a big vessel but a small lancha. The lake seemed to be rough, so we decided to wait 15 minutes and take a proper boat. We were right to do so - in the middle of the trip, the waves became so high that even the big boat was tossed up and down like a toy. It was horrifying.
Fortunately, we safely arrived in San Jorge slightly after 8. We caught a taxi to Rivas and another one to the border with Costa Rica.
We reached the border at 9 and crossed it soon after. Remember to have a proof of leaving Costa Rica when entering this country!!!
We managed to catch a 10 am bus to San Jose (the next one leaves at 1 pm). The buses leave directly from the border, maybe 50 meters from the customs.
We were told the trip would last 6 hours, but it took us 7 to get to the bus station in San Jose (we entered the city during rush hours). But we had the panoramic seats at the top front, and the view was spectacular during the whole journey, so we didn't really mind. The bus was new and comfortable, the only problem was a toilet - there wasn't any on board, and there was only one "pee" stop on the way.
We took a bus to Cariari at 9 am.
The day before we were told to arrive at the bus station one hour before the departure. We came at 8:10 am, and there was already a big line of people. Someone informed us not to worry because if a bus fills up, they provide another vehicle. We didn't have a chance to prove it right or wrong because we managed to board the first bus. It left the station at 8:45 with a few seats empty and a lot of people still waiting on the bus platform. The bus was huge and modern, with AC.
We arrived at Cariari bus station around 11 am. Our bus parked next to another one, old and much smaller. It was apparently waiting for ours to come. The passengers were told to change the vehicles quickly. We had only small backpacks (we left the main luggage in the hotel in San Jose), so we moved fast and were able to get seats. Many people were not that lucky, and they had to stand all the way to La Pavona (1,5 h, the road is very bad and bumpy).
La Pavona is a big ranch, with a big restaurant and a parking lot. It is located near a river and has its own haven.
In the restaurant, we got the tickets for the public boat. We had to wait for it almost an hour. In the meantime, a couple of private vessels left La Pavona, so it's better to go straight to the haven and take the first boat to leave. They all looked the same. The only difference was price - the public ones were a dollar cheaper (they all charge additionally for the big bags/backpacks/suitcases).
The river level was low, and the boat was moving slowly. We reached Tortuguero after 1,5 h.
Tortuguero has a strong Carribean vibe, although it's just a small, remote village, easy to walk through in 20 minutes. We had not much to do, as it's forbidden to swim in the ocean (strong currents).
In our hotel, we booked a boat trip to the Tortuguero National Park for the next morning.
At 5:45 we were picked up from the reception by our guide, and we walked towards the park entrance, picking up two more people on the way.
After we had paid the entry fee (the line was huge), we moved to the marina, from where the boats were leaving. Some were the motor boats, some (like ours) were the rowing boats. The rowing boats are a better option as you can actually see the wildlife. The motor boats frighten all the animals, and they can use only some of the canals.
But the best option is the kayaks. Unfortunately, we had no idea it was possible to rent them in Tortuguero National Park. It is.
During our trip (3 h) we spotted a sloth, a nutria, a cayman, and lots of birds, including toucans and aras.
We came back to the village about 9 am and planned to visit the park on foot as well, but its area was very limited. It appears the Tortuguero National Park is to be visited by boats solely.
Having completely nothing to do, at 11 am we took a boat to La Pavona, where we had to wait for the bus for about an hour. In Carriari again, the bus to San Jose was waiting for us. This time it was an old vehicle, with no AC.
We reached San Jose at 5 pm.
It was Good Friday, and we filled it with the Holy Cross Processions.
We started at 10 am with El Carmen Church. The procession was just splendid, with the professional actors and the orchestras, and the national TV transmitting it live. The procession went towards the Cathedral, where the last Holy Cross Station was set.
We didn't wait until the end, though. Instead, we took a bus to Cartago, a pilgrimage place, where the famous Black Madonna, or La Negrita, performs her miracles.
The bus trip from San Jose to Cartago took us 45 minutes, but only because a few times the bus had to wait or change its route due to the local processions.
We arrived exactly at noon and caught the Cartago procession near the ruins of the Santiago Apostol church, moving towards Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles. It was much bigger but less "official" than the one in San Jose. We also visited the Basilica which is incredibly beautiful.
In the afternoon we came back to San Jose and bought the tickets to Monteverde for the next day.
In the morning we visited the fascinating National Museum in San Jose, with the stone spheres guarding its entrance.
At 2:30 pm we boarded a public bus to Monteverde. The trip took us about 5 hours and the last part of the road (the winding and steep one) we covered in complete darkness.
At 7:30 am we took a bus to Monteverde Reserve (30 minutes). We paid a rather expensive entrance to the park and started our visit in the rainforest. We saw a squirrel, coati, snake, and lots of birds (unfortunately no quetzal). The park was very crowded, especially near the hanging bridge.
In the evening, we joined the night walk tour. There are many on offer, and all of them almost the same, so choose the cheapest one. Despite our guide's claims, we hadn't seen any frogs. But instead, we saw a female sloth with a baby and a dead tucan. Plus some sleeping birds, lizards, and insects.
At 8:30 we went to Santa Elena Reserve. The entrance fee was a bit cheaper than in Monteverde Reserve. There are a few trails to choose from. We wanted to climb the observation tower, so we chose the path leading to it. We met very few people in the park, so this reserve is perfect for those who came to Monteverde in search for peace and quiet. And the observation tower was amazing.
At 1 pm we took a bus back to Monteverde town, and at 2 pm we boarded another bus - to San Jose (the way back took us 4 hours and was very picturesque).
At 9 am we took a bus to Manuel Antonio (4 hours), where we stayed for 6 days.
Day 16 - 19
Manuel Antonio is a trendy destination, for both Costa Ricans and the foreigners, but we loved it despite the crowd. You'll see many animals here, not only in the park but also near your hotel. During our stay, we saw a few sloths on the way to a breakfast parlor!
Visiting Manuel Antonio Nationa Park was also an incredible experience and we fully understand its popularity.
W H A T T O S E E N E X T
It was a long day. At 9 am we caught a bus to Quepos (the nearest town; the bus runs four times per hour; 15 minutes).
We got some food and water and took a taxi to the hospital, near the main road, where the buses going to the border stop. The bus to David came at 10:20 (it leaves San Jose at 7:30; we bought the bus tickets two days before, in Quepos).
Passing the border took us an hour - again, we were asked for a proof of leaving Panama!!!
We reached David at 4:30 pm and managed to catch another bus, to Panama City, at 4:45 (they run very often). We arrived in Panama City shortly after midnight, but there was no problem with getting a cab to our hotel from the bus station.
In the morning we went to the picturesque Old Town, where we hung for a couple of hours. From the Old Town, we took a taxi to Biomuseo on the Amador Causeway. It was Monday, and the museum was closed, but the entrance ticket appeared so expensive (20 USD) that we would skip it anyway.
We took some photos of the bizarre museum building from outside and walked the causeway all the way to Isla Naos (beautiful panorama of the city!). We stayed there until the sunset, and when it was getting dark, we caught a bus to Albrook Terminal (they run through the causeway very often), from where we took the metro connection to our hotel.
Metro is very convenient in Panama City, so choose a hotel located near a metro station.
In the morning we went to Mi Pueblito - an open-air museum in a shape of a big village depicting three Panamanian cultures: Afro-Caribbean, the interior region, and indigenous groups. It was not bad and made a nice appetizer for one thing in Panama City we just loved: Ancon Hill.
The path to Ancon Hill starts exactly near the entrance to the museum and leads you to the view of Panama City that will stay with you forever. Plus on the way to the top, we spotted a baby sloth, two toucans, and a snake. It takes about 20 minutes to get the peak, the road is tarmac, and it's free of charge.
After we had come back down to Mi Pueblito, we took a taxi to the Panama Canal.
We got there about 3 pm. They ask the visitors to leave the museum about 5 pm, so if you're a big fan of the gargantuan ships, make sure to arrive earlier. But do not lose hope if you come after 5 - although you won't see the exhibition related to the history of the canal, you can still see the vessels. Just go straight to the restaurant - they have a viewing terrace as well. And you don't have to pay the entrance fee.
From the Panama Canal, we took a taxi to the Fish Market, where we started our stunning sunset walk through Avenida Balboa (do not miss this!). We finished near Iglesia del Carmen, where our hotel was located.
After breakfast, we went to the Museum of Contemporary Art.
We took the subway because it looked close from 5 de Mayo station. Unfortunately, it was a bit complicated to cross the nearby big avenidas, and it took us 15 minutes of walk through some shady neighborhood. The museum was quite interesting, but not really worth the hassle.
From the Museum of Contemporary Art, we walked toward the Fish Market, and on Avenida Balboa, we caught a bus to Panama Viejo (we took the first bus with the sign on the windshield saying "Panama Viejo").
It was a bit tough to figure out the right stop for the Panama Viejo Museum, so you'd better ask other passengers.
In the museum, they sell tickets solely to the ruins or combined - with the museum. We only chose the ruins. We enjoyed the view from the restored tower, but the rest was quite boring.
After one hour, we took a bus back to the center. It was 4 pm, and the traffic was extremely heavy so it might be a good idea to visit Panama Viejo outside the rush hours. We decided to leave the bus near F&F (the spiral skyscraper) and walk to Avenida Argentina (we heard it's beautiful, but it wasn't).
Early in the morning, we took a taxi to the airport to catch the plane home.