Lava, Lakes, and Lounging: Five Unique Nicaraguan Experiences

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.

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.

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/ 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.

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.

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.

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 ( (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.

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 ( 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).

Getting There:

Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315; 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 ( 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).

Snow Showers

Sometimes, the best remedy for a serious bout of jet lag can be something as simple as a long, hot shower. The kind of shower that steams up the entire bathroom, and melts away the stress from a transatlantic journey. That's exactly what I needed after traveling from San Francisco back to London. Especially after lugging my 67 pound suitcase, plus backpack, about half a mile from the tube station to my house---through the snow.

Unfortunately, our house was having a problem with some of the plumbing. One of the pipes on the outside wasn't attached properly. If we turned the water mains back on, water would come flooding out of it.

The person who was supposed to fix it that day didn't show up. Great.

So what do you do when you're in desperate need of a shower, and there's no running water? Yes, my friends, you take a snow shower!

Showering With Snow: Amanda's Handy Tips

As the great Scottish mountaineer J.H.B. Bell once said:

"Whoever indulges in a snow bath on a mountain crest will continue his progress along the ridges with renewed zest and vigour"

Inspired by my trip to Nicaragua last summer, in which we took bucket showers (the village of Goyena has no running water), I decided to apply this technique to snow.

The following are my handy tips for those of you crazy desperate enough to want to try this:

Step 1: Gather Snow We had plenty of clean snow in our backyard, so I gathered up as much clean snow as I could into every available pot.

Step 2: Melt Snow Using every burner on our stovetop, I melted down the snow. As it starts to melt, you can add more snow to maximize the amount of hot water you'll get in each pot.

Step 3: Make Snow Transportation-Friendly Rather than taking each small pot back and forth, up and down the stairs to the bathroom, it's better to pour the hot water into a larger container and take that up.

In this case, my large container was a big, unused plastic bucket. I poured all of the hot water into it, and carried that up to the bathtub.

Step 4: Gather Bathing Supplies To actually clean yourself, you'll need a small hand towel (or a loofah), soap/shampoo of your choice, and another small container for rinsing your hair.

I used a mug, but if you're feeling cannibalistic, why not try a ladle?

Step 5: Wash, Rinse, Repeat Now that you have all of your supplies gathered in the bathtub, you're ready for a snow shower!

Use the mug to pour hot water all over yourself, making sure to get your hair as wet as possible.

Then, dip the small towel or loofah into the bucket, and pour soap on it. After you're all nice and soaped up, dip the mug into the bucket and rinse yourself off.

Now it's time for washing your hair. No matter what length your hair is, it's best to just dunk your whole head in the bucket. Once it's soaking wet, you can shampoo away!

Use the mug to rinse out most of the shampoo from your hair. If you're feeling particularly indulgent, you can use conditioner at this point.

Finally, the best part of all, you can now take the whole bucket and pour the remaining hot water all over yourself.

Congratulations! You've now taken your first snow shower!

Now go forth and enjoy your renewed zest and vigour!