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Volcano Boarding

This has been one of our most popular videos on the Facebook page. Watch Steve’s view (through the GoPro HeroCam) as he slides down the side of the Cerro Negro volcano outside Leon, Nicaragua.

Be sure to hydrate on the road

imageBy Vicki Barnes
I have long been an advocate of proper hydration. You know, drink water…lots of water…all day, every day.
So, imagine my  surprise when I looked back on a day last week and realized I was so dehydrated that I was actually suffering from heat exhaution.
We were traveling about 8 hours on the un-airconditioned bus to cross the border between Panama and Costa Rica.  All day, sitting on the bus with a brief stop to get passports stamped, walk a half a kilometer from one country to the other, get another stamp and reboard.
Over the course of the day, I drank about a liter and a half of water. I figured that should be sufficient.
I figured wrong. Continue reading

Accommodations Review – Lazy Bones: Leon, Nicaragua

imageBy Vicki Barnes
For the weary traveler, the name Lazy Bones alone is enough to draw you in, but the atmosphere in this hidden gem of a hostel in Leon, Nicaragua is laid back and energetic at the same time.
While Big Foot Hostel is famous on the internet for its electrified raves, its American-style pizza nights and high speed volcano boarding, Lazy Bones offers a more eclectic vibe that appeals to a more international crowd whose travel itinerary involves more than partying.
The hostel is run by a cooperative, a group of employees who share in the risks and the profits of the endeavor. They treat each other and the guests like family.
You might miss the door to this place if you weren’t sure of your destination two and a half blocks south of the Poets Park, across from the Mediterranean restaurant. A locked gate opens into a dark reception area, but beyond that is a courtyard with a beautifully-maintained tropical garden. On one wall, a surreal mural with bits of Nicaraguan history and lore in shades of red and gold. Across the way, a couple of tidy dorms.
Dorms are $8 and the private rooms with ensuite baths range from $20 to $30.
Beyond the garden are a few private rooms and family suites, a small dorm and another courtyard with a pool, a small Internet cafe and a kitchen where one can get a delicious breakfast.
The kitchen also serves as the staff’s community kitchen where staff and their families can prepare meals for themselves and their families with food they’ve each donated to the pantry. For a fee ($14), you can get a class in basic local cooking from one of the staff, including how to make tortillas from scratch. In the end you can eat your meal.
Staff members are using their talents and knowledge of the local area and history for a new tour (Maribios Tours) company as well. They are just getting started, so they haven’t gotten all the kinks out of the system, but they are doing a great job. There are shuttle drivers who get a little lost (not badly – and in a country with no street signs and roads maintained by residents – not surprisingly) and a lack of promotional items like T-shirts to make them more visible.
They are enthusiastic and encouraging and wonderfully kind. That goes a long way when exploring something new.
We did the volcano boarding ($30 including breakfast, a fresh fruit snack, water, transportation and everything you need to fling yourself down the ashy side of a volcano) with Claudia, a young woman who had grown up running up and down the “hills” (1000+ foot active and inactive volcanos) that surround Leon.
Standing at the base of Cerro Negro, an active volcano (it is presently just spewing small amounts of sulfuric gas, not lava), I briefly considered backing out of the whole deal. I am (a) pudgy, (b) of a certain age and (c) afraid of falling off volcanoes.image

“No, Mi’Lady”, she said, grabbing me by the hand. “I will hold your hand all the way up. It’s not hard. We’ll do this together.” All the way up, she encouraged me, always smiling. (By the way, sliding down a volcano is the most fun you can have on a narrow piece of plywood.)
Lazy Bones only takes 5 or 6 people in a group on their tours. Other tours take groups of 40 or 50. Because of this, they can offer personalized attention that makes all the difference.
While we missed having a communal kitchen where we could prepare our own meals at this hostel, the experience was a great one overall.

Reservations: email them at


Border crossings


By Vicki Barnes

We feel like we’ve crossed so many borders this trip (two in the last few days), it hardly seems a big deal any more. You get your stamps, you pay your fee, you walk out of one country into another, you get your stamps, you pay your fee, you walk into another country.

No biggie! Continue reading

Guest contributor: Stew’s views on what to do and see on the Río San Juan, Nicaragua

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Here’s a post from our friend Stewart about his travels on the Río San Juan just a week or so before we were there. Stew is a solo backpacker who has traveled to Central America and Asia with little more than a few pairs of shorts, a bathing suit and shoes. He has meditated with monks in mountain retreats for a week and bicycled from mountains to the shore. He knows how to experience the heart of a place.

I decided on full-bore pampering and went to Refugio Bartola. The food was excellent and every meal was included with lodging for $50 US a night, plus free canoes, free access to their private reserve bordering Indio Mais. Guide was $20 for a morning tour, awesome primary rainforest, saw howlers, caimans, paca, possum-like animals, a mountain cat called a “tida?,” and of course birds of all sorts, eg ospreys, egrets, great blue heron. Little tip: don’t let the Refugio staff or the tourist guides in El Castillo tell you you have to pay $25-30US per trip to get to the Refugio because the public boat to/from San Juan de Nicaragua goes right by it, 2 bucks or less.image

Another thing that fired up my imagination was the little historical tour of the El Castillo fort and its interpretive centre, I didn’t realize that the fort was such a key location for Caribbean pirates and the Spanish.

I would add that a good place to stay in El Castillo is Posada del Rio, it is all warm wood and accommodating staff situated right outside the second boat launch in El Castillo, right by Hotel Victoria. Their room for one with bathroom was like $15 a night while I was there. Also there was a caiman about the size of a pre-teen lurking under the bridge as we crossed over to this hotel on the first occasion, a great introduction.

I also stayed at Luna del Rio for the night, it was really nicely appointed but Pricey, $35.00 for a large-ish comfortable bed in a single room. Good for honeymooners but not for a backpacker on a budget. The owner was nice but she kept claiming (after I’d told her twice) that she knew nothing about the cheap public boat to the Refugio Bartola, which was going to be $30 US for a 30-minute trip if I did things her way. I think that the proximity to Costa Rica and its tourists may have upped the prices in this one little slice of Nicaragua, El Castillo definitely seemed more expensive to me.

Oh, and I did have a good experience with Mildred, the English-speaking travel guide in the tourist office overlooking the main dock at El Cast. She was unfailingly pleasant, helpful, and honest and the one who gave me info about the public boats. The nature canoe tour she set up was more a jaunt down a stream flowing between cattle fields, pleasant enough for seeing birds but clearly not out in the wilderness either.The guide had some grand-faluting name for the stream that I don’t remember, Rio somethin-or-other, I started referring to it as the Rio Vaca because of the close proximity to barnyard animals.

Imaginary lines

imageBy Vicki Barnes
The towns along the Río San Juan are rough around the edges, as one might expect in the distant frontier of a country.
Sandwiched between the river and the rainforest on land that is Nicaragua, but which in some spots is claimed by Costa Rica, it is not surprising that the residents are strong and a bit boisterous. Continue reading

El Rio Tranquilo: life on the Río San Juan, Nicaragua

imageBy Vicki Barnes
The Río San Juan is far removed from just about everything in the cities of Nicaragua. The distance encompasses time as well as space.
The river is the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, stretching lazily between Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea. The water belongs to Nicaragua and the land south of its banks are disputed territories. Police from both sides patrol the area and there is no fighting, but both claim the land as their own.
On the river, life moves more slowly than in most places.
There are homes and cattle ranches and small towns from time to time. For the most part, there are vast expanses of undeveloped land.
The best, and in some cases, the only way to get from town to town is by boat. There are the slow boats and the slower boats.
Long motorized “taxis” operate on a regular, though limited schedule. The trip from the mouth of the river at San Carlos to the last stop at El Castillo takes about four hours with about a dozen stops along the way. The full ride costs less than $3 per person. If your destination is closer, you pay less.image
There are faster boats that take you directly to your destination, but you pay more for the convenience.
There is no wifi anywhere once you leave San Carlos. No one, save the internet addicted tourists, seems to miss the instant connectivity with the outside world. They have telephones and that seems to be enough.
You can’t be in a hurry here. The taxi comes by your stop two, or maybe three times a day. That’s when you go. Or, you can walk through the hills above the river. Or paddle along the shore.
The river, which drains 9 million gallons of water a minute from Lake Nicaragua to the sea, moves fast. The people here do not.
Julio and his family have been living for a couple of decades in Sabalo, a small town of a few hundred people at the place where the Sabalo River trickles into the Rio San Juan. He settled in this spot when he left Managua because of both the natural beauty and the history associated with the river.
In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish traveled the river, settling in

The rapids offered additional  protection at El Castille, where the Spanish defended their cities upstream from invading pirates

The rapids offered additional protection at El Castille, where the Spanish defended their cities upstream from invading pirates

Granada and Leon. The British and then buccaneers followed in an effort to lay claim to what they had. A fortress was built above the area where rocky waters form choppy rapids, slowing down the invaders and allowing easier protection.

Miners from the Gold Rush in California sometimes tried to get their treasure from the Pacific to the Atlantic through this part of Nicaragua. Some didn’t make it. At least two sunken ships with gold are said to be in the shallow waters of the rio.
In the 19th century, it was the Americans who came to river, wanting to build a canal. Cornelius Vanderbilt and others made grand plans for a cut through that would make it easier to move goods between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In the end, an easier political climate to the south opened the way for the canal to be built in Panama.
In the mid 20th century, tarpon fishermen came to catch the huge game fish. Some people say the fish could be seen jumping all along the river in those days. Today, they are still being caught, but their numbers are far fewer. One of the locals reported that last September, a whopper  – 140 kilo – tarpon was pulled from the river. It was so big, the town of Sabalo (which means tarpon) had a festival to celebrate the catch.
Nothing comes here easily. Yaro, who owns a small lodge along the river, said that if you want anything – from a nail to a bottle of beer to a can of beans, you must travel to San Carlos.
In the towns, locals sell fruits and vegetables they have grown to one another. A few shopkeepers will make the trek to San Carlos or even Managua to get the things – like American-style clothes or school supplies – that their customers want. They bring in a few items like Coca Cola and cigarettes that the few tourists ask them for. But they are, for the most part, self-sufficient and happy with the life they have.
And, so, life continues slowly along the river. There are restaurants and hostels, a few fishing camps and quiet eco lodges to serve the travelers who want a slower pace from the traditional tourist path.
Jobs are few and some of the younger residents are moving away to look for work. Julio said he made sure his children received a good education to prepare them if they felt the need to go. But, he also raised them in the family businesses – selling food and drink from a boat that travels the river and a small guided tour service of the river.
Business has been good as more people take the slower path on the river. Perhaps his children will be able to stay.
Residents are glad to see the visitors and welcome them warmly. Still they know that if the tourists come in too great of numbers, it could damage their river and their way of life.image

From the lake to the river: an adventure on the way to an adventure

By Vicki Barnes

The road to San Carlos and beyond on the Río San Juan is an arduous trip involving multiple modes of transportation. There is a more direct route, thought it is not for the faint of heart and it is the one we chose.
The ferry from Altagracia at the base of the Concepcion Volcano on the island of Ometepe, leaves under the cover of darkness twice a week. In the morning when you wake up – assuming you were able to sleep – you can see the sun rise over the mouth of the Río San Juan in San Carlos. Continue reading

Refrescos on the go

By Vicki Barnes

imageA warm breeze was blowing off the beach this afternoon as we made our way back to our room. Ninty degrees and dry. Thirst was demanding a my attention.

“Something cool and wet would be perfect right about now,” I said to myself.

And then, as if I had conjured a magical solution to the situation by simply thinking about it, a young man with a wooden cart with a door on top attached to the front of his canibalized bicycle pulled out of a driveway ringing a hand bell. Continue reading

Guest contributor Dave Quinn on Ometepe Island and traveling with kids

We are opening up Budget Nomads to other like-minded travelers who would like to share their experiences from the road. If you would like to become a part of our growing community, please send your stories and/or photos to If you have a blog of your own, we would be happy to do a link exchange as well.

We met Dave Quinn and his family at the Hacienda Merida on the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. Dave is the “Outdoors Guy” for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). This is the story he prepared for the CBC, which he’s sharing with all of us.

By Dave Quinn

This week I will be checking in from Isla Omatepe in Nicaragua. Nicaragua itself is such a fun place to travel, for many reasons. It is relatively small – seven Nicaragua’s would fit inside BC – but the country is incredibly diverse (something on the order of 10 to 20 times the biodiversity of BC, depending on how you calculate it), with a Caribbean and Pacific Coast, a backbone of mountains and volcanos, and the two largest lakes in Central America. It has been long overlooked as a tourist destination, mainly due to US President Ronald Reagan’s illegal war on Nicaragua from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s. Continue reading