After a lovely 15 days spent in El Salvador where I wasn’t really on my own very much, I was ready to get on the move again. The day I left San Salvador, I was planning to make it to Nicaragua, but I didn’t make it that far due to public transportation. Since El Salvador and Nicaragua don’t share a border, I had to cross back into Honduras and drive two hours through the country to the other border crossing for Nicaragua. Since I was just pulling into the border town, San Marcos de Colón at the southern part of Honduras, by 8 PM, I decided to stay the night. That meant I got a good night’s sleep and one more typical Honduran breakfast of baleadas and fresh cantaloupe juice in the morning before I headed for the border.
My first destination was the town of Estelí, a so-called “cowboy” town in the northwestern highlands of Nicaragua. One of my first encounters with a local occurred at a roadside food stand, where I had ordered an afternoon snack of an enchilada (more like an empanada stuffed with chicken and rice) and quesillo, a small block of cheese toasted on the grill, a Nicaraguan specialty.
The man came up to me and asked if I was going to treat him to an afternoon snack as well. Naturally I was wary of being approached so brazenly, but he started speaking to me in English some so I listened. The guy was in his 60s and had previously lived in L.A. for 15 years—has citizenship even. He has been retired for seven years and came back to Nicaragua (where his retirement money and social security get sent) because he said there is no life in the States—why would anyone want to live there when they can live in peace and tranquility elsewhere? This is the general consensus of many people in these countries: go to the States until you feel financially secure, then go home and live the good life with all the money you made (that stretches so far in these countries).
He continued to probe me for information, and when I let it out that I spoke Spanish so well because I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala for two years, he started telling everyone who passed on the street (usually locals, all of whom he knew by name) that I worked for the CIA. Apparently, Nicaraguans all used to think that PCVs worked for the CIA, especially during the war—why else would they be infiltrating rural villages and trying to gain the trust of all the locals in their communities? By the time 20 minutes had passed and everyone who walked by knew my name, the state I was from, and my supposed CIA agent status, and this guy had interrogated me about my marital status, I think he was bored so he left to probably find someone else to poke fun at. The whole encounter made me laugh because it is so typical of the lifestyle of rural towns.
Estelí is a relatively mellow place so I decided to take a writing day while I gave my dog bite injury some more time to heal before getting active again. There wasn’t too much to do in Estelí anyway. It is known for its cigar factories, but I wasn’t really interested in that. It also has some natural reserves and opportunities to hang out with local families and make tortillas and stuff, but since I had been doing that for two years, I decided I could pass. The big thing I was interested in was the Somoto Canyon, an hour and a half north by the Honduran border, so I signed up to take the tour the day after my writing day.
I hopped on a bus to Somoto early the next morning and was picked up by the tour operator who took me on his motorcycle to where the tour guide was waiting for me. They geared me up with water shoes and a lifejacket, and the guide and I set off on foot for the canyon. It turned out that I was the only person who signed up (and showed up) that day so I got a personalized tour, and we moved at my pace! My tour guide even voluntarily became my personal photographer, constantly asking, “Do you want me to take a picture of you here? How about over there?”
The hike through the canyon ended up taking about three and a half hours, and the place was stunning! After making it to the actual canyon, we made our way through it by jumping off canyon formations into freshwater pools, then swimming or walking through the streams toward the other end of the canyon. Being right there in between these giant canyon walls just drifting along gave me such a peaceful feeling. Nicaragua is so proud of the Somoto Canyon that the 50 Córdoba bill (Nicaraguan currency, approximately equal to US$2) even features it.
While Estelí is a mellow town, it is also filled with very bothersome men. I, just as every other foreign woman living or traveling in Latin America, have encountered a significant amount of unwanted male attention, however, I don’t know that I have ever gotten as much attention as I did in Estelí. The men were shameless. The catcalling, the kissy-smoochy sounds, and the honking. All of it. One guy even slowed his car down in the street, holding up traffic, until he was just ahead of me as I was walking down the sidewalk; he made sure to make eye contact as he made a very exaggerated kissing motion toward my direction, earning a much-practiced scowl from me before I turned the corner. Of course, the escalated attention probably was due in part from my “solo traveling,” but I still made a note to avoid all so-called cowboy towns in the future.
In addition to being completely annoyed by the brazen, relentless attention from men in Estelí, I also didn’t find anyone I really connected to there. It made me really miss some of my previous awesome travel buddies like Marcus and Tibo. Estelí seems like one of those “heart of Nicaragua” towns in which you have to spend a lot of time before the people start trusting you. But I didn’t exactly have another two years to spend there and this trip wasn’t focused on integration, plus the last night in the dorm room at the hostel brought in a couple more antisocial people and a girl who smelled as if she hadn’t showered for a week, so I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there! Off to León.
Not long after arriving in León, I was already feeling better. After dodging pressure to stay at “the biggest party hostel in León” by a guy who waits at the bus terminal scooping up travelers before they catch their breath and convincing them to head to his hostel, I found my way to a place called Lazybones Hostel, which was much mellower than my first option and even had a nice swimming pool and plenty of hammocks. I immediately caught the vibe and within minutes, I made new friends who were just as laidback and friendly as the hostel. Hanging out with the four German guys and the two Dutch girls made me yet again think, “Geez. Europeans are so funny and really smart!” We all had a great time and swapped some fun stories and travel recommendations.
In the next couple days, I spent a lot of time with the Dutch girls, Marieke and Marjolein (sound like “Marika” and “Mario-lane”). Marieke is a teacher and was spending her summer holiday traveling in Nicaragua. Marjolein had recently ended a contract with her job in Mexico, where she had been living for four years; she is currently en route via land to Argentina, where she plans to look for work and live for a while. Marieke and Marjolein had actually attended school together in the Netherlands years ago and found out that, by chance, that they were in Nicaragua at the same time so they made sure to get together in León, where I found them. And I am sure glad I did!
León itself is a nice place—a university town, although it has the reputation for being the hottest town in all of Nicaragua. After breakfast with my friends the next day (Sunday), I wandered through the streets into the Rubén Darío museum (he was one of the most influential poets in all of Central America and still a very important figure in Nicaraguan history), through the Ortíz art gallery to admire old paintings and sculptures, and over to a couple prominent churches and the giant cathedral in the area. There weren’t too many people wandering around while I was in the middle of the day (which can probably be attributed to the thick heat) so it gave the place a very laidback feeling.
It is a relatively easy town to get around in although the majority of given directions come in forms such as “from the central park, a block and a half up” or “from the La Merced church, go two and a half blocks down and one block over.” Of course, the only way to know which direction is up, down, or over at any given time is to try to follow the hand signals of the direction-giver. There are all types of transportation, but it is far from overcrowded and the streets are decent (with the exception of a bazillion deep potholes along every sidewalk). Additionally, I was surprised by the number of locals all over the country who choose bicycling as their main from of transportation (in Estelí as well!).
Another trend that caught my attention all over Nicaragua was the presence of rocking chairs. The most common setting is a front porch, yard, or sidewalk after the sun has gone down and things start cooling off. (León comes alive in the evenings!) It provides a great spot for locals to get some fresh air and people-watch while chitchatting about this, that, and the other thing. But rocking chairs aren’t just found there; they are in people’s living rooms, at restaurants, and even serving as the main furniture in travel agencies and hostels! (I continued to see rocking chairs in every other town I visited as I traveled south in Nicaragua, as well.)
I planned my big León adventure for Monday morning: a hike up Volcano Cerro Negro—a young, active cone that is completely black and has three craters that are constantly hot with sulfuric activity—with the specific intention of sand-boarding down the side of it. I went with a group of six through an agency that drove us out to the park and set us up with boards, jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads, gloves, and goggles. (We carried our gear up in special bags for later use…)
The hike up the volcano only took about 45 minutes—the shortest ascent I have ever made on a volcano. Not only did we get to look down into the craters and out over the landscape, but we also spotted unexpected wildlife: a porcupine foraging for a meal only a couple meters away from us!!
After walking around the top for a few minutes, it was time for the real fun. We geared up and got a quick lesson from our guide on how to “steer” and slow down or speed up during the descent. The majority of us had chosen to go down sitting on our board as opposed to standing so it was more like black gravel tobogganing than sand-boarding. (The one lady who attempted to go standing took about 10 minutes to get down because she kept falling every few feet, said it was a lot of work, and reported that volcanic gravel doesn’t really have anything in common with snow; we were all impressed that she took the task on in the first place.)
When it was my turn, I sat down, grabbed the rope handle/reins, leaned back, and gave myself a little push. Then I was off! Speed picked up really fast because the smooth push-off quickly becomes a steep 45-degree angle descent, and all I could focus on was trying to keep my board pointed downward. But that was hard to do while I had black, charcoal-like gravel shooting up the legs of my jumpsuit, firing at my cheeks and exposed mouth, falling down my clothes from the opening at the neck, and nailing my goggles. Despite being under gravel-attack, I had to stay steady and focused because as soon as you lose focus, you fall and take a rough tumble. I managed to stay on and make it to the bottom in about 40 seconds. It was exhilarating!
As soon as I got back to Lazybones, I checked in with Marjolein and we were both ready to get on the move (and away from the debilitating heat) and head for the coast to a place called Surfing Turtle Lodge, on a little island called Isla de Los Brasiles, just off the Pacific beach town of Poneloya, 20 minutes west of León. (Marieke had left us early that morning for her flight back to the Netherlands; this is the point when Marjolein and I became official travel buddies.) We were a little skeptical of this place because it seemed to good to be true, but we decided to give it a shot and stay at least one night. Getting out there was an adventure in itself that involved a hot, sweaty bus, then a 10-minute walk to a random restaurant where we were supposed to take a tiny motorboat out to the island, and then walk another 15 minutes through a marshy forest until we arrived at the lodge right on the beach.
Upon arrival, we looked at each other and decided that we were going to stay longer than planned—at least a few nights. (That was a Monday.) So although the Surfing Turtle Lodge had neither good surfing (since the currents were way too strong and would break a lot of boards) nor turtles due to the fact that it wasn’t turtle season, it was still a neat spot to hang out because it was practically the only place on the island. We stayed in the spacious dorms that had a nice breeze and an ocean view and enjoyed the isolation for a couple days. The place was rustic and the food options were limited, but you can’t really demand much for a place out in the middle of nowhere. The peace that the ocean provided was the payoff.
I don’t really have much to say about this part of the trip because I didn’t do much but read, write, and relax. I took a couple walks on the beach on which I could go at least 30 minutes in either direction and then return without seeing anyone else out there. We also played in the waves but we didn’t go too far out of respect for the current. There were other travelers there so we met lots of people and were in good company, but the best part about it was that there were enough people there to get beach volleyball matches going every afternoon for three days straight, plus a little bit of ping pong in the evenings!
I kept to myself a lot so I could spend time with nature and my thoughts. I also found that I have very different priorities from the younger travelers looking for partying or romance so the conversation with them proved difficult; Marjolein (at 35) and I often sought each other out for conversation relief from the early-20-somethings. We were still very social when the time called for it; for example, there was no way either of us was going to miss the full moon party with the beach bonfire and group mystery games on Thursday night! It was also great to hear the individual stories of some of the mellower guests which included Terry, an easygoing South African who works on yachts and has a favorite hobby of shark-diving, and the Dutch couple who has been trying for years to start a family, and after recent run-in with bad luck (for the 4th time), decided to use the money they had been saving to buy a car for “future family use” to take a big trip to Central America instead.
One of the highlights of being of the week (besides volleyball!) was witnessing a torrential storm that battered the island and gave us a big show. The lightning was practically right on top of us, flashing and cracking so immediately after each bolt appeared that it was scaring the begeezus out of us and had the adrenaline coursing through our veins as we all looked on in awe. We even saw a bolt or two hit the ocean, which was really cool!
We finally decided to leave the lodge on Friday after four nights there, and we caught a ride to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, with some of the other guests who had a car. Instead of staying in Managua, I persuaded Marjolein to jump on a bus to Granada so we could spend the night there. I try to spend as little time as possible in capital cities because they tend to have more crime and therefore seem less safe. It turned out that we made a great choice because Granada on a Friday night was absolutely fabulous! We showered and each put on a dress and headed out for a girls’ date night. The main street was alive with live music, street vendors, and restaurants with outdoor seating. We picked The Garden Café where we had a delicious healthy dinner; later, we went to a different venue for the live music. Having so many options in a vibrant city was a big change from the isolated lodge on the island we had just come from.
I immediately loved Granada. It is a Spanish colonial-style town with a laidback, coffee shop feel. There is a healthy mix of foreigners and locals, which is nice to see when some towns tend to be overrun by tourists. The male attention that we received was a prevalent part of the culture there, but for some reason, to me it didn’t seem as threatening as it did in the northern parts of the country since the men’s actions were less vicious, more playful, and maintained at a distance.
Another cultural observation I made in Nicaragua was regarding driving, honking, and transportation. In the United States, I had become accustomed to people only honking for road rage purposes when they get angry or frustrated at another driver; in India, I think all the people who are incessantly laying on their horns think that, by doing so, it might magically clear the streets or make people drive faster in the overwhelmingly congested streets. My personal experience with being honked at in Latin America can affirm that it is used as a really lame way to get a female’s attention—a sort of catcall. Of course these are generalizations, but the generalization I have for Nicaragua is that people are very cautious as they drive and use their horns mainly to notify other possible drivers in the area that they are approaching an intersection or attempting to join the flow of traffic. I found honking to rarely have disrespectful or angry undertones in Nicaragua.
Another note on transportation: cars and trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and horse-drawn carts share the road equally. It was neat to see so many locals on their bicycles cruising down the streets. It became as common as the rocking chairs! And Nicaragua is the only Latin American country I have been to where using horse-drawn carts for practical purposes and transportation in the cities as well as the rural areas is completely normal.
A few more cultural notes on Nicaragua are the following: 1) Baseball is the national sport. They are so into it! It was refreshing to be in a baseball country since I have been surrounded by nothing but soccer, soccer, and more soccer for the last couple of years. I’m not really much of a soccer fan, but I love me some baseball so finally I was in the right spot! And to see how women, men, kids, and adults alike shared their love and enthusiasm for the sport was heartwarming. 2) The Spanish language in Nicaragua is very casual (also using the informal “tú” form when speaking in second person). The people seem just as laidback as the way they speak, although the thicker, harder to understand Spanish (literally, the one that comes from Spain) accent seems to have infiltrated the Nicaraguan way of speaking more so than in any of the other Central American countries I visited. 3) Nicaraguans refer to themselves as “Nicas” for short.
To be continued…