From volcano surfing, to a blind massage, discover Latin America’s hottest up-and-coming destination
1. Volcano Surfing in Leon
It’s not every day that you’re teetering on the edge of a volcano, ready to surf down a steep volcanic ash slope on nothing but a flimsy piece of plywood.
But the Cerro Negro (Black Hill) volcano, located 25 km northeast of the colonial city of Leon, offers adrenaline junkies a chance to try out this offbeat twist on surfing, also known as sandboarding.
View from the top of Cerro Negro
Nicaragua is called ‘the land of lakes and volcanoes’, but Cerro Negro is the only volcano in the country that you can ‘surf’ down. The 400m high volcano lacks vegetation, with one side made of large rocks and the other side of black volcanic sand.
Surfing the Volcano
The hour-long hike is steep, and carrying a wooden surfboard doesn’t make it any easier, but the 360-degree panoramic view at the top is more than worth the effort—as is the rush of surfing down the ashy slope in less than ten minutes.
For those less keen on surfing, there’s also an option of running down the side of the volcano—just make sure to wear good hiking shoes and clothing to protect against being scraped by small lava rocks.
Essential Information: Vapues Tours (505 2315 4099/www.vapues.com) offers the Cerro Negro Express Tour, leaving from Leon at 8:00 am every day and returning at 12:30 pm. The tour costs 12GBP—including transportation, a bilingual guide, and refreshments—and an extra 6GBP for sandboarding.
2. Partying on a Bald Bus
If the thought of flying down a steep volcano sounds too treacherous, riding the topless Bus Pelon (“Bald Bus”) is a tamer way to take in the sights of the city of Leon.
The 'Bald' Bus
While cities like London and New York have double-decker bus tours, Leon has its own uniquely Latin American twist on what would otherwise be just another bus tour around the city. Take an old school bus, paint it vibrant colors, torch off the roof, string up multi-colored fairy lights, and you have the Bus Pelon.
More party bus than tour bus, Bus Pelon also has an impressive sound system that thumps Latin club music throughout the entire journey.
Partying on the Bus Pelon
And with its open-alcohol policy, it becomes the city’s only nightclub in transit. If you go on a Friday night, you can enjoy a tasting of quesilleros, Nicaragua’s famous fried cheese.
Essential Information: Bus Pelon runs once an hour, all night long. The pick-up point is right in the heart of Parque Central. It costs 5 Cordobas (15p) Sunday through Thursday, and 10 Cordobas (30p) on Friday nights.
3. Swimming in a Crater Lake
Nicaragua has many crater lakes, but most of them are not clean enough to swim in. However, the idyllic Laguna De Apoyo—a 30 minute drive from Granada—is one of the cleanest bodies of water in Nicaragua.
Laguna De Apoyo
And, as the deepest measured point is 200 meters, it is the lowest point in Central America. The thermally vented crater lake, which was formed over 20,000 years ago when a volcano imploded and filled with water, retains a perfect temperature all year round.
If you work up an appetite from swimming, the perimeter of the lake is also dotted with small restaurants offering typical Nicaraguan dishes. Crater’s Edge Restaurant and Hostel makes delicious platanos fritos (fried plantains) and Nicaragua’s national dish, gallo pinto, which can be enjoyed while lounging on a hammock overlooking the lake.
Essential Information: Crater’s Edge Restaurant and Hostel (www.craters-edge.com/ (505) – 2552 – 8006) offers daily transportation to and from Granada. The microbus costs 2 GBP return and leaves Hotel Oasis (C. Estrada 109, Granada/Tel:505 552 8006) at 10 am and 4 pm, and departs Crater’s Edge at 10:30 am and 4:30 pm. If you’re not staying at Crater’s Edge Hostel, you can pay 3 GBP for water access and use of on-site facilities.
4. Monkeying Around in Granada
Thousands of years ago, the Mombacho Volcano erupted and threw huge lava rocks into Lake Nicaragua, in Granada. 365 islets were formed because of this eruption, and the area is now known as Las Isletas.
Lola searches for fruit.
Ranging in size from a hundred square meters to over a hundred hectares, Las Isletas is home to local fisherman, wealthy expatriates, an 18th century Spanish fortress—built to protect Granada from pirate attacks—and Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island).
Boat tours include a stop by this simian sanctuary where, if you bring local fruit (such as mamon, similar to a lychee), you may be lucky enough to hand feed one of the adorably furry spider monkeys.
Just across from Isla de los Monos is El Restaurante, which serves freshly-caught fish alongside other Nicaraguan dishes, and also has a bar, sun deck, and swimming pool open to restaurant-goers.
Essential Information: Tierra Tour in Granada (www.tierratour.com/ 505 2552-8723) offers a 2.5 hour tour, 5 GBP, that leaves from Cathedral, Street la Calzada, 2 blocks away from the lake, every day at 10 am and 3 pm.
5. Blissful Blind Massage
After trekking around Nicaragua’s lakes and volcanoes, there’s no better way to relax than with a full body massage—performed by a blind masseuse. In the open-air courtyard of Granada’s Euro Café, a charity called Seeing Hands runs a blind massage parlor for blind Nicaraguans otherwise unable to work elsewhere.
As you’re led to your massage station, by the parlor’s only full-sighted employee, you’re met by a blind, Spanish-speaking masseuse. Unlike typical massages, this one starts out with the masseuse lightly feeling around to see where your back and limbs are located. Once you’re relaxed from the blissful hour-long massage, indulge in a scoop of the bistro’s homemade, all-natural gelato, which comes in Nicaraguan flavors like pitaya (dragon fruit) and cacao (cinnamon-spiced chocolate).
Essential Information: Seeing Hands Blind Massage Parlor is located in the back of the Euro Café (505 2552 2146/Esquina Noroeste del Parque Central) just off the Central Square, and is open every day from 7:30 am to 9:00 pm. A one-hour, full body massage costs 7 GBP, but the company also offers shorter chair massages (starting at 15 minutes for 1GBP).
Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315; http://www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a 13-day ‘Highlights of Nicaragua’ tour, which includes stops in Granada and Leon, starting from 2,095 GBP per person; including b&b, flights, transfers and excursions. Tailor-made, including flight-only, options are also available.
If you are traveling independently from the United Kingdom, there are no direct flights. Continental (www.continental.com) flies from Heathrow, via Houston, Texas, to Managua International Airport. From the airport, there are local buses and taxis for hire that go to Granada (45 min/1 GBP bus/7 GBP taxi) and Leon (1.5 hr/1 GBP bus/8 GBP taxi).