Discovering my Roots in Nicaragua
Updated: May 13
Sweaty, naked, and half awake, I felt my sister Becca shake my shoulder gently. She says “Bella,” in a whisper, “there’s a monkey in our treehouse.”
My first morning in Nicaragua was like something out of a movie. We woke up to a sunrise, whilst sitting in the trees, with a couple dozen howler monkeys completely surrounding us. It was euphoric. We sat there quietly, listening to the jungle. We had finally made it. We were in Nicaragua!
My grandmother was born in Managua, Nicaragua. Just like many other Nicaraguans she emigrated to California during the dictatorship of Somoza. That is where she met my Spanish grandfather in San Francisco, they got married, and then had my mom. I grew up living with these grandparents so I have a good sense of identity. I know that I am Basque, so I have visited Spain. I also knew I was Nicaraguan, but I was always discouraged from going there. “Why would you want to go to Nicaragua? It’s too poor and hot.” My grandmother loved her country, but saw it differently than I did. She saw it as a war torn country, a country where she slept in hammocks instead of beds, a humid country full of bugs and other dangerous creatures. But one day my sister and I just decided we had to go and see it for ourselves.
One of the hardest things about planning a trip is knowing where to go. This was a trip of self discovery, we knew that we didn’t want to visit family until our next trip. This trip was solely for us to step outside of our comfort zones while exploring our roots. We took the recommendations from friends and family and decided to backpack the southern half of Nicaragua. We packed our bags and headed first to the old colonial city, Granada.
My sister and I knew that we wanted to stay in hostels for our entire trip, but thought it would be a good idea to book a hotel for the first night so that we were guaranteed a good night’s rest. So we decided to look for a fun eco hotel near Granada. We came across this hostel which featured hammocks to sleep in, shared rooms, or private treehouses. We booked a private treehouse thinking this would be a good idea. When we arrived at Granada from the airport, we had sometime before our truck from the hotel was picking us up, so we stopped at Cafe Las Flores. You can think of it as a Nicaragua Starbucks. I ordered a vanilla Frappuccino with Kahlua. Can we just talk about Kahlua in a Frappuccino!? Revolutionary.
(Side note: you can buy their coffee beans on Amazon. I literally buy them all the time; it’s so delicious)
Once we were done enjoying our drinks and listening to older men play boleros in the park, it was time for our drive to the hotel. We hopped in the back of the truck and drove straight into the jungle where our treehouse waited for us.
When I say this treehouse was ridiculously small, I mean it was a tiny platform where we had to grip the sides in order to not fall. We were terrified of kicking our bags off the sides of our treehouse, as it wasn’t enclosed! We thought booking a treehouse was going to be perfect for our first night in Nicaragua. As much fun as it was, we got absolutely no sleep. But honestly, waking up completely surrounded by monkeys was completely worth it. I just remember sitting in silence, just listening and watching all of the monkeys. It was the welcome I was looking for. It really solidified that I was there. I was present, and I was thankful.
We climbed all the way down from our treehouse, took a shower together (the showers were communal, so we figured we’d take a shower together considering there were only 2), popped on a sundress, and then walked over to the main building to have breakfast. It was absolutely surreal drinking black coffee from the beans being grown not too far away and eating gallo pinto and queso frito with eggs, food my grandma would make me growing up. We eventually had to say goodbye in order to meet our friend Holly back in town so that we could go down south to San Juan del Sur.
Holly is an avid surfer. So naturally when we invited her to Nicaragua with us, she asked “Can I bring my surfboard?” We found Holly sitting with an older man back in the town centre, enjoying some food. After finishing her conversation with him, she met up with us, we got on a bus and headed south for the surf town. We were able to find a hostel after trying a few different places right across the street from the beach. We walked around a bit and did some shopping and then came across this small company advertising Turtle Tours! Holly and I actually met whilst working at a zoo together, so naturally we took an interest. We scoped them out, figured they were legit, and agreed to go on a tour later that night!
A tour guide picked us up from our hostel at midnight because the turtles come to shore late at night in order to lay their eggs. It was such an incredible experience! The stars were out, the moon was bright, and we got to help with turtle conservation. Due to global climate change, the Nicaraguan government has tourists (accompanied with a guide from the area) go and collect turtle eggs in order to incubate them at the appropriate temperatures. Turtles are temperature dependent, so it’s critical that their eggs are incubated accordingly. But because the weather is getting warmer, the sand is getting hotter, thus more females are being hatched. Just remember, cool dude, hot chicks! By doing this, not only did we help turtles, but we contributed to the Nicaraguan government’s conservation efforts and supported a local business ran by locals! Overall a great win.
(If you want to learn a bit more about this, check out my Responsible Ecotourism blog).
In San Juan del Sur, we also did lots of eating and lots of drinking, Holly did lots of surfing, but eventually we made our way over to the island of Ometepe. We took a bus from San Juan to the edge of Lake Nicaragua. When we first got on our boat, we realized, “this boat has no railings.” We handed our bags to the staff and they stacked it on top of all the other bags near the edge of the boat, to then be fastened with some rope. My heart was skipping a beat the entire boat ride. At any second, we thought the bags for sure would fly right off the boat. Once we got to Ometepe, it felt like we were transported back in time. There were very few cars on the road, the streets weren’t paved, and cows were the cause for traffic. We were able to find a hostel on the volcanic island after having tried a few different places, only to be welcomed by a scorpion in our room. Luckily for us, Holly doesn’t mind creepy things, so she picked it up and placed it outside safely.
After getting settled, we went to this awesome pool called Ojos de Agua. I HIGHLY recommend going there! It’s a natural pool being fed water from Concepción volcano. It has tons of lizards and turtles running around, coconuts filled with rum being sold, and a rope swing. The next day we decided to go kayaking around the island. We had a guide with us who took us to go see spider monkeys, caimans, and ox! Being the animal nerds we are, we all asked our guide if he’d ever seen a bull shark in these waters. Fun fact: Lake Nicaragua has some of the most bull sharks in the world. Unfortunately, he said no. But that didn’t stop us from looking for a fin.
Eventually our adventure ended back in Managua. It was a hard goodbye, but we knew we’d be back one day. This backpacking trip was beyond my wildest dreams. I didn’t shower some days, I had to throw my dirty toilet paper in a trashcan, and I had to carry everything on my back. But I also ate amazing food, swam in the ocean, and most importantly, I finally got to see for my own eyes the country that my grandma was telling me about. All the stories of her sleeping in a hammock and running around with no shoes came true for me. I can not thank my beautiful Nicaragua enough for being so welcoming, for sharing it’s jungle with me, and for giving me my grandma.
Soy Nicaragüense por gracia de dios.
What an awesome blog! Nicaragua has been part of my dream road trip through Central America ever since I visited Costa Rica. That region of the world is has such a fascinating history and is much less known then it's neighbours to the north and the south. Reading this story has made me want to go even more.
If you like Gabriela's writing like we do then go check her out over on Beige Tides where she wrties about her travels and gives tips to anyone who needs them. She also has an Instagram account full of dynamic photos that really show her passion for photography. Check it out @beige_tides