Nicaragua is the most underrated country in Latin America.

Nicaragua's Red State and Blue States

Nicaragua's has two jewels: its former capital, Leon, and its historic rival city, Granada. The Spanish founded both towns in 1524; just 32 years after Columbus discovered America and 83 years before America's Jamestown Settlement.

The character of the two cities quickly formed: Granada became a red state and Leon became a blue state:

  • Granada was wealthy and all about business.
  • Leon was a more liberal and artistic than Granada.
  • Granada, with its strategic location on the biggest lake in Central America, was nicknamed "the Great Sultan" because of its enormous riches from trade.
  • Leon was not only Nicaragua's first capital, but also had the country's first university.

The two nearby cities hated each other so much that after many bitter wars they finally agreed to move the capital to a city that is right between them: Managua. Although Managua is still Nicaragua's capital, it is not as beautiful as Leon or Granada.

Lovely Leon

Leon cathedral, Nicaragua
Leon's highlight is its cathedral, the largest in Central America. It's worth seeing the photos I took of it, even though it was hard to get the immense building in my camera frame. The locals submitted bogus blueprints in 1747 so not to let Spanish authorities know about the monstrosity that they planned to build, for fear that they would not allocate any funds. It suffered massive cost overruns and it took the Nicaraguans over 100 years to construct it. Now you know where the Pentagon gets its budget proposal ideas from.

The other highlight was the private museum called Fundacion Ortiz. Sadly, few Nicaraguans visit it, even though it's free. As the curator said, "Unfortunately, the locals aren't interested in art." Also worth seeing is La Casa del Obrero, where a poet/journalist, disguised as a waiter, forever changed the country when he shot and killed Somoza, Nicaragua's most famous dictator.

Golden Granada

As nice as Leon was, Granada easily tops it. Granada's colonial monuments are spectacular. Its setting (sandwiched between El Volcan Monbacho and the enormous Lago Nicaragua) is divine. The combination makes it tied with Guatemala's Antigua as the best city in Central America.

Crossing the largest lake in Central America

El Lago Nicaragua is the 21st largest lake in the world, but what makes it special are the twin volcanoes that rise in the middle of it, forming La Isla de Ometepe. If you're familiar with Crater Lake in Oregon, then imagine the same idea, except that there are two Wizard Islands connected to each other, that the island is 10 times bigger, and that they're set on a lake that is a 100 times bigger than Crater Lake. That's Lago Nicaragua. Swimming in the fresh water are sawfish, tarpons, cichlids, and the endangered bull sharks.

Ometepe island with two volcanos, Nicaragua. I climbed the one of the left. It had the same lenticular cloud that it has here. It's called Concepcion, I believe.
A boat takes you to La Isla de Ometepe, which seems like a fairy tale. I couldn't resist getting up at 4 a.m. to climb to the top of the island's tallest volcano, Concepcion. Unfortunately, when I climbed it had, as it often does, a lenticular cloud at its summit, giving just one meter of visibility. The cold, dense cloud also confused me so that I couldn't find the way down. Getting off the volcano took six arduous hours of bushwhacking through dense jungle filled with tropical birds and screaming holler monkeys.

Although Lake Nicaragua drains into the Caribbean via the Rio San Juan, it's only 20 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean and it's just 32 meters above the sea. That made it a prime candidate for an inter-ocean canal. However, that never happened because in 1916 the US bought the exclusive rights to make a canal in Nicaragua. The US only did that to stop other countries from building a canal that would compete against the Panama Canal.

El Lago Nicaragua has the best boat trip value on the planet. Twice a week a slow boat leaves Granada, stops at Isla de Omepete, and crosses rest of the lake to arrive at San Carlos, a border town. From the island it takes 10 hours. Yes, it's a big lake. The price for this overnight journey? Three dollars.

Don't expect much for $3. If there are few passengers, you can lay down on a bench during the overnight trip. However, I felt more comfortable sleeping outside on the deck, under my sleeping pad, enjoying the warm ocean breeze.

Taking a boat to Costa Rica

After paying $3 for a 10 hour boat journey, paying $10 for a one hour boat ride felt like a scam. However, that boat ride down El Rio Frio (The Cold River) is the only to go from San Carlos, Nicaragua to Los Chiles, Costa Rica.

In the next article I'll share two things:

(1) What it's like to go walk through Costa Rica's most dangerous city at night.

(2) The best Central American story I've ever heard!

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