March 30, 2016

Grubbin' in SJDS

When we were feeling adventurous we'd leave the comforts of the casa and venture into San Juan del Sur. The city has a reputation of being a party town, but it was pretty laid back. Maybe life in Las Vegas has skewed my perception? I felt it was pretty comparable to Ocean Beach, CA. Small eateries, bars, board shops, but overall it's very chill with surfers, hippies and a fair share of tourists. I'm sure when the booze cruises return to dock it can get a little crazy, but we were mostly out and about in the afternoon or evening before nine o'clock. We found it pretty quiet during the day, I imagine because everyone is at the beach. The nights were definitely more lively.

When we first got into town we grabbed a quick bite at Don Monchi's Pizza. The next day, we had a better lunch at The Cerveceria. We stumbled on it purely by accident; leave it to us to find the only place in Nicaragua with craft beer. It was such a joy to have an IPA after days of light beer. We chatted up the bartender from KY, and he suggested the pulled pork sliders and we opted for an order of nachos, despite being warned of their size. They were good, but the sliders was where it was at! Good eats. Better drinks. They offer a porter too. I initially thought " blech" because of the heat. But much to my surprise, they kept it light and refreshing.

The next day, I had to satisfy my craving for seafood. Tripadvisor declared El Timon was the place to get it. We were seated at a table closest to the beach. Which gave hawkers ample opportunity to showcase their wares. They were polite and accepted our "no gracias" so it wouldn't have been bad if it wasn't one after another after another. It grew awfully tiresome. I was beginning to regret my choice, but we were won over by the octopus ceviche served with yucca and plaintain chips. It was so tender and had great flavor. My fish with garlic sauce was less impressive, but still enjoyable.

On our last night, we dined at G & G Gourmet. It was a quaint space so it's best to secure a reservation. We did not have one; however, they were able to squeeze us in. We were seated at the table nearest the kitchen, which was quite warm, but it was fun to see the beautiful dishes on parade. The menu had only a few options, but they're sure to please anyone. It is indeed gourmet at a fraction of the cost at home. We're talking about a fantastic meal, complete with a bottle of wine, tax and tip for $45. We started with carpaccio, followed by entrees of the catch of the day paired with risotto and linguine with clams and shrimp. We were much too full to power through dessert, but I'm sure that would've been delicious as well. This place is a must!

Next up, the beaches!

March 29, 2016

Airbnb for the Win!

When we were toying with the idea of traveling to Nicaragua it was the rental I found on Airbnb that sealed the deal. It was a jungle tree house with commanding views of the Pacific. I showed the photos to Frank and he was immediately on board. I admit it seemed too good to be true, so you could imagine my relief when we arrived and seen first hand that it was indeed breathtaking.

Living room


Outdoor dining and pool

King in master


fantastic views

When making the reservation we were told that a 4WD vehicle was required. Much of the way to Balcones Majagual is dirt but graded, it's the last leg past the guard shack that 4x4 is needed. The road is steep grade and it winds around the homes built into the hillside. We were led up to the home for the first time, first meeting up with the rental manager at the Remax in the heart of San Juan del Sur. She pointed out the Pali grocery store on the way and waited while we gathered items since it is about 20-25 minutes to the house.

Frank and I love visiting the neighborhood markets in our travels. There is something fascinating about the differences of everyday life. We stocked up on beer ($5.20 6pk), diet coke (.50 can), coffee ($1.74), eggs ($1.59), butter ($1 stick), burgers ($1.37), milk (.71) and snacks. We failed to think about spices so another trip to the store was necessary the next day. We ended up purchasing a non-stick pan then too - our first souvenir. Our first attempt at omelets were a disaster without it, but I digress. One tidbit that struck us as odd is that milk doesn't come by the carton or plastic jug like you'd find at home. Instead, it's stacked in the refrigerator in various sized plastic bags. Which didn't strike us as that odd until we opened it and had to come up with a way to pour and store it. Needless to say, we made a mess, and I transferred what was left into an empty water bottle. I'm curious to learn the reasoning. It's also worth noting that take away beverages from street vendors or convenience stores will pour your drink into a plastic bag, place a straw inside and tie a knot to secure it. This was less puzzling, because Coke and Pepsi are in glass bottles and I imagine the deposit is rather high. We saw pouches of water sold at intersections in Managua. It appears you bite the corner and your good to go. I suppose the baggies create less waste, but it wasn't uncommon to find empty bags and used straws littering the streets.

The drive to the house was much easier than we expected. Occasionally, we ran into "traffic" but it was no bother. Once we got settled at the house, we were quickly at ease. The restful part of vacation has begun or as Frank said, "Fuck off world!"

We'd start our days by drinking coffee on the porch. We'd take in the view and birdwatch. There were so many varieties, two of the bright yellow birds decided on a nest in the tree above the pool overlooking the Pacific. Even in the bird kingdom it boils down to location! location! location!

Stunning views of the Pacific

Stunning views of the Pacific

On our second morning, we were fortunate to have a pack of 10 howler monkeys pass through. It was an amazing sight! We had heard them periodically since we arrived - their call is unmistakable, and they don't observe the community's quiet time rule.

We were fortunate to have 10 howler monkeys pass thru

Watching them lunge and jump through the tree tops was incredible.

We visited during dry season, and Nicaragua has experienced a few years of drought so the jungle wasn't very lush. There were still plenty of beautiful flowers, but in full bloom? It must be gorgeous.

It was dry season and a 3 yr drought, but blooms are still vibrant

Once the sun crept up directly above, it was prime time for sunburn. So, we'd use this time to visit San Juan del Sur. We'd grab lunch, have a walk around and pick up odds and ends. We'd return about 2ish most days and it would be quite hot. We'd keep cool in the pool. We sip cervezas, Frank would smoke Joya de Nicaragua Antaños, and the hours passed like minutes.

When the sun slipped into the sea - the sunsets were dazzling. The perfect end to perfect days.

March 16, 2016

Getting to Know León

My only regret about our time in León was not staying longer. We only had two nights in this charming city, which left us only one full day to explore. We covered a lot of ground, but I fear we only scratched the surface. I would love to return to visit its ruins and beaches, and simply absorb more of the impressive city. It's the second largest after Managua. Home to eight volcanoes, likely the most well known is Cerro Negro. Famed for its volcano boarding. I admit it is what put León on the map for me. I so badly wanted to go, but as the trip neared I came to terms that my ankle would hold me back. The hike and the boarding seemed like to big of risk so I nixed it from our itinerary. The city still intrigued me, and I felt we'd have plenty to see even if León still very much belongs to its locals and students. Every step of the way, our experiences felt authentic. In no way did it seem to cater to tourists. I absolutely adored it.

We stayed at Hotel Flor de Sarta which is a lovely colonial building owned and operated by a delightful French couple. Everyone there was warm and welcoming from the moment we entered the wrought iron gate. Accommodations were very comfortable, the pool was refreshing and breakfast offered a fabulous spread of eggs, gallo pinto, crepes and fruit. There was a resident hen that greeted us each morning, and bats fluttered around the pool in evening. The location is superb, just minutes from the Cathedral, museums and art galleries. We walked the area during the day and night, restaurants and bars were open late and the variety was such a pleasant surprise.

We began our enrichment with a visit the Museo de la Revolucion. It broadened our understanding of the war torn years, FSLN and the unfortunate role USA's foreign policy played. Nicaraguans certainly don't think highly of Reagan and who could blame them? But they hold no grudges against Americans. Those we spoke to said it'd be silly to hold people responsible today for mistakes made in the past - how wise, but I digress. Our guide at the museum is a veteran he proudly pointed himself out in photos on the wall and showed us battle scars. I appreciated his passion greatly. I only wish I understood more Spanish so nothing would've been lost in translation. He was patient and kind, and found ways to explain when I'd get lost, "no entiendo." Our tour included a walk up to an old and tattered corrugated metal roof. He pointed out where it was "safe" to step so we could enjoy the view. The museum is housed in an old post office, which has scars of its own, but the remarkable architecture remains.

Next, we visited a free art gallery using various medias. A man passing through was eager to point out the painting with Reagan. And then, we strolled over to the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian. This was a private collection so no photos were allowed, but there were many paintings and sculptures. I enjoyed the art installations, but my favorite part were the architectural details of the colonial buildings. From the ceilings to the floors, I was in awe. It was lovely just to sit in the shaded courtyard, the peacefulness and cool breeze was a delight.

After volcano boarding, the second top attraction is the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion. We first passed it in the evening. It appeared mass was being held, it was very striking lit at night. It is the largest church in Central America and for $3 you can walk the roof barefoot. Once you climb the narrow stairs the contrast of the stark white domes against the bright blue sky will make you feel like you've been transported to Santorini. The 360-degree views highlight the many churches and volcanoes in the distance. Walking barefoot on the roof of a church had never made my bucket list until now. It was a breathtaking sight!

León is quite hot, we found ourselves parched more than once and cold smoothies and fresh juice really quenched our thirst. Jugoso puts Jamba Juice to shame, it's all natural, fresh and they have a huge menu. Plus, one smoothie is plenty for two and it's less than $2. We had a fabulous blend of berries and golden fruit. Outside the cathedral, we took a break at El Sesteo. It seems to be a popular tourist spot. I had a trenta sized glass of watermelon juice that hit the spot, while Frank enjoyed an iced coffee.

The food in León was outstanding. We didn't try any street foods; we were too late at the market, most vendors were packing it in for the day and we were too full for the night vendors. We did however, have a fantastic lunch at La Mexicana with fresh salsas, empanadas and delicious chilaquiles - some of the best I've had. The tortillas in Nicaragua were thicker than what we find in Mexico and they were perfect for absorbing the sauce without getting limp or soggy.

For our first dinner, we wandered the streets and found ourselves at Al Carbon. It specializes in grilled meats and set in a beautiful courtyard garden. We had a starter of stuffed jalapenos and we tried a sampler platter and found the chicken and steak (great marinade) to better than the pork. I really dislike chicken at home, so it was such a surprise to be fond of it in Nicaragua. It was much more tender, juicy and flavorful. It was here, I had my first taste of Toña beer. One of the two national beers - Victoria is the other. It's light and refreshing, and often cheaper than bottled water.

Our last dinner was at El Bodegon, which was recommended by the hotel. It is a quaint space located in the owner's home. The Cuban influenced menu is simple and ever-changing. The frozen mojito is the drink of choice. Despite a number of attempts, I believe I can officially claim I'm not a fan of the mojito. Even when not too sweet, the mint is just too overwhelming. I associate it with toothpaste, rather than a cocktail. Aside from that, the food was excellent. We were offered pork, chicken or fish. The pork was quite good, but again I preferred the chicken - what's happening here? Our dinners would be considered upscale, but when it came time to settle the bill - we were pleasantly surprised. At most, we were looking at $15 per person, alcohol included.

English was often spoken and US dollars were widely accepted. We ran into some trouble using the ATM's in León. Our preferred debit card is a Mastercard it carries no fees and typically accepted everywhere in our travels. However, here, the machines rejected our transactions because only Visa cards were approved. So, we paid about $15 in fees to use our secondary card for 10,000 Cordobas. I'm told this was unique to León, and Mastercard isn't a problem elsewhere in the country. That very well may be true; we had no trouble at the Managua airport when Frank withdrew 1,000 Cordobas to test it out upon arrival.

As I mentioned before, I wish we had more time in León. I have no doubt, we'll return. Hasta luego! Next up, San Juan del Sur.