7 Things to Do Sober in Nicaragua, and 3 Others Just to Do

“We’re hiking that & sledding down? Just what’s in Santa’s magic sacks?”

Nicaragua has often been called the ‘land of lakes and volcanoes’ by visitors. Since I toured its manufacturing facilities a few weeks ago, Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum has often been called awesome by me. Appropriate then, that the following listicle begins with volcanoes and lakes then, following a turbulent dip in the ocean, splashes merrily down into a hogshead of fiery, quintuple-distilled sugar-free rum. Hold on tight.


One: Toboggan down a live volcano, tough guy!

“Oompa, loompa, loompa-tee-tee. This could be the end of poor me.”
Santa’s sled: part cat door, part dog leash.

Actually, if there was one activity here that maybe you didn’t want to attempt sober, this would probably be it. In a maelstrom of tiny ashen rocks, sledders achieve up to 80kph descending the face of Cerro Negro. You don’t want to slip or be pushed.

Cerro Negro last blew in 1999 but is still smoking in places upon the crest we walked. The ash there is 50% warmer than the mean temperature. Speaking of mean, Cerro Negro translates to “black hill”, a name with all the imagination of a Toronto Council planning board. Walking up its 728-meter rise is surprisingly easy, especially if you have a professional mixologist cheerleading you on the way with 18-year old rum. Jeff from Calgary, who magically transmogrifies into El Jefe after your first mid-morning pick-me-up, is one of our Flor de Caña hosts. His colleagues have arranged for Bigfoot Hostel Volcano Boarding to get us through this first recommended experience alive, led by a Nicaraguan man-crush with the far more imaginative name, Santa. Santa and his colleagues fit ten of us out in orange onesies and worker’s goggles; we look like Oompa-Loompas or escapees from an ‘80s video.

The suggestion is to attempt this sober but we’re trained professionals.

The plunge is as steep as any double black diamond but the ‘powder’ is sharp volcanic ash, so let’s not wipeout. Santa demonstrates how to sit on Bigfoot’s ‘specially designed sleds’ that look unnervingly like cat doors with a dog leash attached at one end. “You lean back to slow down. Don’t use your shoes,” he advises. Good advice for those of us in sandals.

Not wishing to prolong the anxiety, I volunteer to be among the first to descend. Three minutes later, we’re off! Thank the inspiration for El Convento (see two below) for Bigfoot’s goggles. You couldn’t see more than three feet in front of yourself because of the thousands of minute abrasions on the protective plastic surface. Veering to one side too fast, I’m tempted to dig my sandals in but hear the magic voice of Santa in my head, then lean back while steering Bigfoot’s dog leash straight. At the bottom, El Jefe’s associate, Freddie silently greets me with a generous Macuá, the national drink of Nicaragua. I’d clocked 50kph!

Two: Witness another active volcano you’d NEVER want to sled down.

Virgin? Watch your back!

If you’re a virgin, watch your back near your smartass friends. Especially if they ignored the advice to remain sober during our first suggestion. The fence at the edge of Volcan Masaya is only waist high. Five seconds’ freefall, almost straight down, bubbles one of only six lava lakes in the world. Speaking of unsafe lakes …

Three: Dog paddle one of the only lakes on Earth with freshwater sharks!

Freshwater sharks? That’s a thing?

By now your hair’s blackened with ash and even your mother wouldn’t kiss you without a good scrubbing. Luckily, our Nicaraguan hosts own a beautiful private islet, a few minutes speedboat ride into Lake Nicaragua.

You can’t go there without an invitation but don’t waste your time dropping my name if you want one. I decided to don a life preserver and gently stroke my way around the islet, a diversion of about 45 minutes in the lake’s rather choppy waters. After about a half hour, though, I noticed the entire staff were atop the stone-cut wall about two metres above the lake, hollering for me to come in.

“Anyone seen Steve?”

Thank the inspiration for El Convento (see below) that I found this out later: Lake Nicaragua is home to sawfish, whose long tails resemble, yes, chainsaws (hence the name), and freshwater sharks which, yes, have been known to attack humans. Come to think of it, if you choose not to remain sober during this activity, nobody’s judging. FYI: Flor de Caña 12-year old rum goes well in a coconut. And coconuts float.

Four: Commit mortal sins in an erstwhile convent!

Seen from above, the path forms a cross!
If Jesus and Pinocchio had a baby …

OK, maybe you should lift the sobriety pre-condition for this activity, as well, but consider using sacramental wine. The fetishizing tendencies of the Catholic Church are no secret, but the el Conventoboutique hotel in Leon, Nicaragua goes that extra mile. Their vast collection of colonial-era sacristies, chalices and Pinocchio-Jesus statues decorate the cavernous atrium.

At the atrium’s nexus begins a lush green series of hedges, forming symmetrical contemplative paths. So, contemplate! Soon you’ll notice the hedges are shaped form a massive cross to be seen from heaven. It’s as good a place as any to confess your filthy sins from the night before. Mind, no novitiate self-flagellant ever had it so good as we did. El Convento’s converted cells boast all the modern conveniences of your favourite boutique hotel.

Slow down there, killer! Have a ride in a caponera. (Five.)

By now, if you’ve been following the agenda and making exceptions regarding sobriety each time, you’re probably feeling a tad sluggish. Enjoy this bike-cum-taxi ride. It’s cheap.

Fun as it looks, a caponera ride isn’t actually for tourists. Locals are likely to take them to the store, school, church, wherever. Nicaraguans, especially those in Leon, are highly ecologically minded. Miles of bike lanes flank the main roads in and out of town. Caponera operators use these paths to prevent tragedies with the ubiquitous semi-trailers hauling who-knows-what around the country at all hours. Given this land’s volcano/lake reputation, much of it is too hilly for taxi-bikes but Leon is fairly flat — at least it feels flat enough if you’re in the back and not the one pedalling.

Huh? Turtle-flute’s NOT a euphemism?

Six: Practice your clever negotiating skills in the Masaya Market. 

You’ll definitely want to stay off the rum before following this suggestion. There are no prices on this market’s charming hand-crafted items. So, if you’re a real SOB, haggle the dealers down to almost nothing. If you’re human, ask the price. If it sounds fair compared to what you’d pay at home, maybe behave like an ambassador for your country and pay it.

I got a beautiful, hollow clay turtle with several holes — it’s a flute — to match the hollow llama-flute that my mother-in-law owns (a souvenir from another Latin-American country). Maybe the allegedly handcrafted clay mug that I got my wife would’ve cost less at IKEA but would somehow wouldn’t feel as authentic.

Surf your ass off in Guacalito Bay while staying at Mukul Resort. There, seven!

Not a postcard.
The surf’s bigger than the surfer.

Even now in the offseason, the suites and villas at the 5-star Mukul Resort are a bit rich for your average blogger. But the view, the exceptional planning and layout, the quality of construction, friendly service and the unparalleled magnificence of the beach with its crashing waves — all this won’t come cheap anywhere.

Remember we talked about remaining sober? If you do hit the hogshead before the surf you may want to don some water wings. This is the full-on Pacific Ocean. The waves rolling into Guacalito Bay arise from flat to fuuuuhhhck in seconds. I lost my lunch. Another writer was lucky he only lost his aviators, far out as he’d drifted.

By now you deserve a drink! Luckily El Jefe pairs your rum cocktail to the menu! (Number eight.)

An outtake from The Bachelor?

Note the cleverness of the pairings in the menu on your left. Unfortunately, you can’t dine in the same atmosphere as our lucky intimate party. Our hosts, owners of the next suggestion, also own this beautiful Italianate palazzo where we dine. It’s on the central square of Granada, its central court as exotic as an outtake from a season finale of The Bachelor.

Even if can’t get into the Pellas family seat and even if you’re on a tight schedule,  allow yourself at least a couple of hours to wander around and marvel at this photo-friendly burg. Its colonial and neo-classical architecture is surprisingly well preserved given the severity and frequency of earthquakes. That’s part of the central square above in the story’s featured picture.

And another! Nine: Tour the sustainable manufacturing facilities of Flor de Caña rum.

Twice around the cooperage, my good man!
“Eenie, meenie, miney, moe.”

The Flor de Caña factory is laid out like a Hollywood film studio. (“Hey, aren’t you the producer of that 18-year old rum? I’ve always loved your work!”)

It even has one of those electric bus-train things to haul tourists between buildings. The tour’s educational. If Flor de Caña’s producers were hunters, they’d use the entire animal. Used sugar cane, post-fermentation, becomes compost. After an honour-worthy life ageing bourbon, used wooden barrels are bought from Kentucky to age Flor de Caña rum!

And when those barrels too sodden decades later to even age rum any longer? They’re turned into furniture by Flor de Caña’s workers. We all shine on!

Cooper? So much more than just a trailer park name.

The tour’s also comprehensive. This company has been extant, successful and, unbelievably, in the same family for over 125 years. That’s five generations without messing up (no pressure, Eduardo). Think about that. George and Thor blew serious holes in the Eaton family fortune by tiring out ‘60s A-listers like The Band, Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin on a cross-Canada musical train ride. Small wonder 0.03% of family businesses last into the fifth generation and so many that do are constitutionally protected.

At the hottest part of the morning, the tour of the facilities culminates in a tasting session in underground vaults with a complete flight of 5-, 7-, 12-, 18- and 25-year old Flor de Canada rums.

Ten: Witness the disappearing craft and science of coopering.

If you think Cooper was a hockey stick or the first name of half the boys in the Whitby, Ontario pee-wee league, hit the bench, Gordie. Coopering is a trade. According to Wiki, a cooper builds and maintains “casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers.” It’s a lot of responsibility.

Jeff (aka El Jefe) toasts a very good few days in Nicaragua.

Consider. When you’re aging liquor for up to 18 years in casks that last decades before being retired, think how much could go wrong. Flor de Caña’s coopers must be sure their containers preserve the rums and maintain the quality — all without the use of nails or screws!

Imagine! Liquor producers and enthusiasts the world over salute these skilled craftsmen for, as we’d say in Canada, keepin’ our sticks on the ice.


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