Our 3 week self-drive trip through Nicaragua ... - Jan 27 - Feb 16, 2020
Our 3 week self-drive trip through Nicaragua organised by Lucia at the local tour company Vapues through kimkim was excellent and exceeded our expectations. The initial discussions with Lucia about our interests and pace of travel were quickly understood and an appropriate itenery with realistic travel expectations proposed, negotiated, agreed, and most importantly delivered.
Despite our late arrival in Managua, the Vapues staff were there to assist with the 4WD booking and get us off to a quick start. The tours around Leon to Isla Juan Venado, Cerro Negro, and Volcan Telica were brilliantly guided by Alex and of sufficient length to appreciate the places and give us enough free time in Leon to walk around, and climb the cathedral at sunset.
Self-drive to Somoto allowed us the freedom to experience what we wanted to see en route at our pace. If you like rum, Flor de Cana is well worth the trip as are the boiling mud pools. The Cayon de Somoto 6 hr hike was one of the highlights and Noel was a splendid accompanyment for the adventure guiding us through the safe way to jump 12m into the river. The full tour of the canyon is recommended to see the full range of ecosystems including the roosting micro-bats. The surprise 50th birthday celebrations laid on by Vapues and Canyon de Somoto tours were delightful.
Next stop the cloud forest highlands around Jinotega where the varied birdlife, coffee plantations, and different climate were a surprise. The accommodation (Aguas de Arenal and La Bastilla) was very good, relaxing, and attentive with the few number of tourists making it to this area. In self-driving make sure you get detailed instructions as both are remote and not well signposted! An excellent bird watching tour from La Bastilla taken by a top guide seeing some rare specimens including the three-wattled bellbird, toucans, and numerous hummingbirds was not to be missed. The long day trip to the rainbow waterfall in Penas Blancas was slightly disappointing, but the scenery exquisite. Local side trips around Jinotega to the zip-line, lake, and local black pottery are worth the effort.
Granada next is a gorgeous town with more tourists than anywhere else, although still small in number. Fine churches, museum, cafes and nightlife. We stayed at El Respiro slightly out of town, which is luxurious with fine views over Volcan Mombacho and awoken to the sound of howler monkeys. Trips to Volcans Mombacho and Masaya are strongly recommended, particularly the sunset viewing of Masaya with the lava lake a highlight of the trip. Both guides Tiger and Rene added significantly to the experience. If self-driving get clear instructions of meeting places: if stuck the locals are lovely, approachable, and very keen to assist in any way. Additional sunset kayaking trip with William from Inuit Kayaks was excellent and his ability to spot wildlife deserves respect.
Next stop Lago de Apoyo, lovely spot and worth the trip. Birdlife was spectacular at all times of day. Scuba-diving in a crater lake is not the most spectacular in the world, but seeing endemic fish, and fumeroles bubbling underwater is unforgetable.
Ometepe was very different scenery with the twin volcanoes shrouded by cloud and the associated cloud forest. The climb of Maderas was VERY tough 7km each way with an average gradient of 1:5 on rocky muddy paths makes for an 8 hour, physical if rewarding experience, glimpsing views through the atmospheric cloud. Morning birdwatching kayak trip from Playa de Mangoes guided by Alan was brilliant just leisurely drifting through flocks of water birds, Cayman, and turtles. The brief rain showers refreshed and offered a different perspective. The half day walk to Ramon waterfalls is less physical, better views through the forest and the chance to see white faced capuchins as well as howler monkeys. Also spotted paca along the way. Waterfall would be more spectacular in the west, as would the walk in, but the water was refreshing to plunge and feel the force of the tumbling waters.
Next trip from Ometepe to El Castillo was a highlight of organisation by Lucia at Vapues. 4WD dropped on the mainland, transferred smoothly by 4WD to Colon on the SW corner of Lake Nicaragua ( the last 15km very rutted) the location of the 'port' is not really known to the locals! The private boat whisked us 50km to San Carlos via an observation of nesting migratory birds on a small island in the middle of the lake: pink spoonbills, wood storks, osprey...a real unexpected highlight. Then up the Rio San Juan to El Castillo. This trip would be nigh impossible to organise and very grateful to Lucia. The jungle in the Indio Maiz is again very different to the rest of Nicaragua. The walking through the post-cyclonic regenerating area around Rio Bartola is well worth it to see the poison-dart frogs and serenity of the jungle. Our guide Sayla was excellent with plenty insights into Nicaraguan life as well as deep knowledge of the jungle. The experience was compounded with a full-day kayak excursion travelling 20km from El Castillo into jungle less affected by the hurricane 3 years ago. The open nature of the jungle and the spotting skills of Harlem and Orlando were exemplary with the highlights being the spider monkeys and 3m crocodile where we were recently kayaking😁. The night Caymen tour with Sayla was another highlight with red eyes staring back from all points along the banks. Other night creatures added to the enjoyable, educational, and relaxing experience.
During the trip Lucia was always available to give updates to necessary changes in itinerary (such as cancellation of the white-water rafting trip due to lack of water). Any changes were quickly resolved with optional tours offered. The only slight criticism would be the lack of specific detail in some of the activity instructions and expectations for tours. This has got something to do with our independent nature of travelling and my pedantic characteristics, but more detail would have reduced some anxiety along the way. If a simple tour it would have been significantly easier.
Lucia as the sole point of contact throughout the 8 month duration from initial request to completion was appreciated. I would strongly recommend Vapues tours, even mentioning the name 'Vapues' when on the road opened doors in surprisingly places. All the guides, drivers, and contacts we met along the way were professional. The tours perfectly suited our description of what we wanted so definitely 5/5 for an exceptionally memorable trip.