I’d wanted to go to Nicaragua since early last year. I’d read about the revolution and the free trade labor zones. I’d read about the massacres and the U.S. occupation and the indigenous languages. I heard about the volcanoes and the lake and the people. Finally, I went. Nicaragua is still Nicaragua. Nicaraguans still speak Spanish, not the dual Spanish/Tourist languages adopted in Costa Rica. Globalization has yet to take full effect. Each day came with many unforgettable moments. Crossing the border in Los Chiles, a forgotten corner of Costa Rica, was amazing in itself. All along, I knew that any attempt to capture the thick, green forests crowding the spaces carved out by the smiling people of Nicaragua would be lacking. I’ll try anyway.
Rice and Beans and Sometimes More
This year, the rains came late and rice supply is low. Many are wondering what they will eat in the coming months. Villagers in many pockets of the country can only afford to eat rice and beans. Come on, think about it. Just imagine eating white rice and brown beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner never tasting pasta, brownies, watermelon, apples, tomatoes, pizza, ice cream or many of the other foods we take for granted in the United States. Now imagine just a few cups worth of rice and beans everyday, three times a day, for most of your life.
Many Nicas, as Nicaraguans like to call themselves, disfrutan (enjoy) more diversity on their plates. Rice and beans dominate all traditional plates but they are often supplemented with fish, chicken, pork or beef along with a small side of salad or potatoes.
I also don’t mean to scare all the coffee drinkers. The northern regions are famous for their high quality coffee production but most of Nicaragua sticks to instant coffee and powdered milk. Soda drinkers can also rejoice since the Coca Cola company has saturated the market with Coke, Sprite and Fanta. When on a boat to San Fernando, I noticed the carefully chosen imported goods consisted of sacks of rice, some vegetables and many more cases of soda and Cheetos. It’s shocking that these companies have found a way to rob these people of their hard earned wages through products that damage the body and the planet.
More traditional drinks are refrescos (refreshments). They are made by mashing fruits and water together or adding fruit juice to water. While most are straightforward, pineapple, watermelon, guava, passion fruit, papaya, some are made from fermented milk and sugar (Chicha) or rice and flower extract which taste like bubblegum.
In cities like Granada, markets are plentiful with what most of souls could desire. The restaurant business here gets loads of tourists so you can find a Thai food menu in English or overpriced burgers at the “Imagine” café complete with Lennon’s face spray painted on the wall. In El Castillo, once a Spanish colony on the San Juan River, the river shrimp (camarones del rio) are unforgettable.
When you walk in and sit down for a meal, the question you ask is “Que hay?” What is there? You eat food that is available and already prepared, there is rarely a menu or possibly an unchanging list of items scribbled on a few pieces of paper glued to the wall. I’ve eaten rice, beans and a fried egg for breakfast and for dinner on the same day. Sometimes, that’s all there is.
Three Boys on a Horse
I arrived late at night in San Jose. The taxi drivers started hounding me immediately. They told me all sorts of lies – the buses aren’t running, it’s dangerous, do you have a reservation because there’s a great place for you to stay, etc. I gave in to this unwelcoming airport welcome system since I didn’t want to wait another hour for the bus. I agreed on $15 for the ride to my hostel. The cab driver called his son on his cell phone and took down my first and last name for my security. His son’s friend pulled up in a small car and we were off. After circling the area many times, I finally spotted the place. I was glad to crawl into my sleeping bag in a room that smelled like a boy’s college dorm room. In the morning I hurried from bus station to bus station trying to get to Los Chiles. Every hour mattered since I wanted to go to Isla Solentiname, an island archipelago with scarce boat transport operating only twice a week. I finally found out I could catch a bus to Quesada and transfer there for another bus to Los Chiles. I had never been to Los Chiles nor heard much about it nor hade a guidebook detailing that area. I was hoping to make the last boat to San Carlos, Nicaragua.
Soon, I lost my ambitions. I remembered that in Costa Rica it’s pura vida, not pura punctualidad. I eased into my bus seat, worked my way through Kerouac’s On the Road, had some caramel infused cake and watched folks at the bus terminal. Soon the homes and businesses of northwest Costa Rica began to give way to forest, plantations and occasional homes. Nearing Los Chiles, we followed dirt roads to drop off individual passengers and carefully advanced in the rain. I dosed off a few times until the bus stopped and everyone got off. I was in Los Chiles. It seemed like a place in the middle of nowhere, a tiny town with a soccer field and some stores built around it. I went to look for the immigration office to get my passport stamped. I couldn’t have been more relieved when I saw a little hotel right across the road.
My first heart-dropping-to-my-toes scare happened when I couldn’t find my green card to show the immigration officer. The only thing I could think of was how many months I would have to live in Costa Rica before I would receive a new one. Once I found it, the officer responded, “I think you need a visa.” “I don’t think I do,” I insisted, knowing nothing about the law and having failed to find any such information on the web for a permanent resident. “Let me call and check,” he continued. No one picked up and he consulted a manual. Still no answer. “I’m going only for a couple of weeks,” I added. “He looked through my passport again, thumbing through a Panamanian visa, words in stamps of ink too light to read, former Costa Rican entry and exist verifications, other places I had visited. “OK,” he decided, “The boat leaves tomorrow at noon, come back in the morning to pay the tax.”
I slept well despite the Friday night festivities at the hotel restaurant. In the morning, I wandered around taking photographs, picking up trash along a river trail and watching the locals fish. On the river side trail I passed kids playing, teenagers having beers and enjoying the early sun and families out in canoes. Suddenly the tall brush of a tree rustled three boys atop a horse emerged. I stood in a daze at this stunning sight and let them pass. A few seconds later I turned around and ran in their direction, blushing I asked, “Can I take a picture?”
In the afternoon I boarded a small boat to San Carlos, Nicargua. We were all given life vests but would only have to put them on while going through border control, a safety facade. The ride up Rio Frio was smooth and slow. Occasionally, homes would appear among the thick lowland forest.
Several hours later we pulled up to the dock in San Carlos and after clearing the border, I was on my way to find a boat to take me to El Castillo. A man was selling what looked like donuts and I asked how much they were. “Cien Cordoba,” he replied. It took me a few seconds to switch currencies and realize that was five dollars and that he was ripping me off. I explained I didn’t have that kind of money for a donut. When I returned about a week later through the same port, the donut was down to 10 Cordoba, about 50 cents. It was good.
I was lucky enough to catch the next boat to El Castillo, a four hour ride on Rio San Juan. The guidebook proclaimed, “you simply must see this river.” I agree.
The water and rainforest lining its banks are impenetrable. The river is muddy and opaque, the forest is thick and lush.
Yet you can feel that there is much beyond the surface. White herons wade close to shore, birds are vocal at dusk, time to time an alligator plops into the river.
It is dark by six and we have another hour to go. On the map, there is only one other town before El Castillo, Boca de Sabalos. Yet the boat makes many stops to unload people and cargo along the way. A woman stands at the front of the boat and shines her flashlight to which other flashlights in the night respond. This is the daily commute.
In El Castillo, I find myself in a town dripping with history, laughter and a genial atmosphere. I walk down the cobblestone street, main and only paved walkway, and hear the falling rapids of the river on my left. Most places in town and there are only a few, are booked but the lovely woman at Hotel Victoria offers to pull up a mattress for me on the balcony. I check out the balcony and ask if I can sleep in one of the hammocks instead. For five dollars it’s a done deal. I unpack my sleeping back and am quickly rocked to a restful sleep.
El Castillo is a small riverfront town with one main walkway along the river and a steep slope that leads to residential homes, plots of land, a castle and a cemetery.
In the 17th and 18th centuries when Granada was accumulating wealth at an exponential rate, English, French and Dutch pirates made it a target and raided the city three times in five years. A fort was built in El Castillo to ward off the treasure seekers. Once the North American gold rush came into full swing, Rio San Juan became the fastest route between New York and San Francisco and traffic increased in this previously remote part of the country. The fortress is a mouthful, La Fortaleza de La Limpia Pura e Inmaculada Concepcion, constructed between 1673 – 1675.
That’s the only tourist draw I can pitch to you, unless you’re also into canoeing, eating homemade meals, farm animals around and about and greeting all the friendly residents of El Castillo.
Human and natural history shape the traditions that linger with the modern. Fishing, farming, hunting, woodwork and crafts are now cohabiting with internet connections in hotels and a café with arcade and video games. El Castillo is like your grandparent’s home – full of unconditional love without pressure, asking you to stay and relax and have a good time, eat well and leave with good memories.
By the afternoon of my first day I covered the entire town on foot, visited the fortress, read most of the signs in the adjacent museum and spent an hour chatting with the woman who runs the tourist info center. I spent three more days doing little besides swinging in my hammock, reading, walking along the river and venturing out for long savored meals. When it was time to go, I knew I had to leave to make it to my next destination but I could have stayed longer, like the traveler lured by the songs of an El Castillo siren.
En Route To Isla San Fernando
Leaving El Castillo was like awakening from a sweet dream in the arms of your loved one in a peaceful home. Alright, waking up next to Paul trumps El Castillo but letting the sun warm you all over as the wind rocks your hammock is pure magic. Still, I had to leave. The boat to Isla Solentiname, a 36 island archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, leaves only Tuesday and Fridays. Painfully sunburned at this point, I embarked on a treasure hunt of my own – sunblock and aloe vera. As you may imagine, Nicaraguans don’t use sunblock, their skin has smartly adapted to their environment. However, I failed to both develop such an ability and did not think to bring sunblock on a month long trip to Central America. After scouring many stores I found a small bottle of sunblock for $16 dollars and settled for an Avon hand cream to soothe my red-as-a-camarone-del-rio look. I chowed down a fried fish and made sure to drink more water than I wanted to keep my burn from worsening.
The boat left about an hour later than scheduled. Shortly after we left I realized I would have to relive my bladder – soon. Another hour passed and waiting another sixty minutes was out of the questions. I asked the captain what my options were. “If you want, I can just pull over to one of those islands,” he replied nonchalantly. I looked over and saw small island with tall trees draped in epiphytes. Delaying everyone’s trip just because I had to drink nearly two liters of water in one sitting seemed unreasonable. “I’ll just go in my water bottle on top of the boat,” I decided. The boats in this area all have a flat roof to carry cargo and the ride is smooth. I moved towards the front of the boat and explained my situation to the men who were hanging out on the roof. I climbed over on top and did my best to position myself above my Nalgene bottle. There I was, on top of a boat in Lake Nicaragua on my way to an island that was formally named no earlier than the 1960’s, peeing in my water bottle. Much to my relief, the whole procedure was rather comfortable and I didn’t have to run into the bushes after hopping off the boat.
There weren’t many hours left in the day which wasn’t a problem – a gorgeous sunset was on its way.
In the morning, I followed the arrow which said “Artisan Houses.” The paved walkway led me alongside the island shore and within a few minutes houses began to appear on my left, on my right palm trees and brightly colored flowers offered glimpses of Lake Nicaragua.
A hundred steps later the shoreline opened up and I could see people going about their day: washing clothes on wash stands in the lake, working on boats, preparing food, fishing, tending to their land or digging for the sewage canals.
San Fernando has been fully set up for to receive electricity in late 2009. Now, several European organizations are sponsoring the installation of a sewage system. I stayed in Hospedaje Mire Estrellas, run by Luis. Luis built the waterfront cabins himself along with two full external bathrooms and was now building cabins with bathrooms attached. When I asked how he knew how to do all of this, he simply replied, “I used to work with a man who was building the same thing and I learned.” All men of San Fernando were working from sun up until late afternoon in brutal heat.
The community here is about 350 people. The main dock allows access for the shorefront residents, one storefront, a café which doesn’t have a sign and is really just someone’s porch, a library and an art gallery.
Trails on the island lead to an overlook, hieroglyphs and farmland. The main shore front can be traversed in fifteen minutes. I spent two days simply going back and forth, reading on the docks, swimming, watching the locals go about their day. Each night I watched the sunset from my hammock.
On the last day, I followed the trails for another great view of the other side of the island.
My boat back to San Carlos left at 5:30AM. Luis woke up early to say goodbye and waited for me to have tea. I was treated like family. During all my days in Nicaragua, I was smiled at and treated as more than just a money sack. I was smiled at and listened to, questioned about my origins and always asked, “Do you like being in Nicaragua?” Guided by moonlight and lampposts, I made it to the dock on time. Then I remembered, we’re on Nica time! The boat showed up about 20 minutes later and we were off. The morning air was cool and I dug out my fleece from my pack. The lake was still and quiet, a few people exchanged words but mostly we all joined together to maintain the peaceful silence.
15 Hour Detour
Back in San Carlos, I already began to revel in the mayhem of this busy town. Most people in the streets are out to sell something, children are selling churros and other sweets, men are selling tortillas made by their wives, others are selling slices of watermelon, homemade candy or fresh caught fish. There is a school supply storefront with several computers with internet access. I made use of the opportunity while waiting for my 2PM boat to Isla Ometepe. A few moments later, Dana, a woman I met earlier while traveling came in with two friends. Dana was visiting her friend Jill who is a Peace Corps volunteer. Ludwig is a friend of Jill who volunteers with another program in town. They were on their way to Granada, the final destination for my boat. The crew had to find a bank and eat lunch so we split and met in the waiting room around noon.
On the docks, a light bulb came on to buy a bottle of rum, the national drink of Nicaragua, and some beer for the ride. The ride was rather long, 11 hours for me and 15 for the Granada crew. Dana and I scouted out the goods and were back on the ship in time. We even bought ice. It seemed like a great idea to put the rum, beer and Pepsi on the block of ice inside the air conditioned cabin. We carefully positioned the liquor and mixer underneath one of the benches and left to enjoy the rest of the afternoon on deck. In a few hours, we noticed one of the ship crew questioning the upper deck ticket holders until he came over to us and inquired, “Are the things underneath the bench yours?” We claimed ownership and I went inside the cabin to take a look. The ice had melted and a small stream from it was running towards the door. Moreover, it turned out we were not allowed to drink alcohol on the ship. The crew member confiscated the beer and rum and promised we’d have it back when we reached our destination. I reported back to my comrades about the situation. The decision was made that in order to enjoy our goods I would go to Granada instead of Isla Ometepe and arrive on the island a few days later. The consensus couldn’t have been better.
The sun was still stretching out into the sky when our ship pulled up to the dock. It was a short walk to downtown and passing through the main square, I was on my way to the Bearded Monkey Hostel. I was glad to have an early start on the day as I would have to leave the following morning in order to spend enough time on Ometepe. I signed up for an 11AM tour to Laguna Apoyo, a crater lake about an hour away from Granada. The scheduling left me with a few hours to run around the city.
Granada is an explosion of color, people and food.
At every turn, painted shutters, doors, fences and columns added to the brightness of the day. People carrying all types of thins were everywhere, on the sidewalk, in the street, on the backs of pick up trucks, heads stuck out the window, elderly in chairs on front porches, children running in between vendors and horses…Granada is full of energy and beautiful Spanish architecture, cobblestone streets and outdoor cafés. I was reluctant to wander back for my laguna visit.
The laguna was warm, clean and gorgeous yet I couldn’t wait to get back to the hustle and bustle of Granada. I had been losing myself in serene, mystical islands and rivertowns and was thrilled to experience another side of Nicaragua. In order to get into the city, I had to patch together a ride into Masaya and a bus from Masaya to Granada. Luckily, a cab was passing my way with a woman and her two children already in the car. They welcomed me in and I shared some chocolates with the kinds who were sharing their backseat with me. Coincidentally, the bus stop was right next to the Masaya Market. My eyes were wider than ever as I made my way through rows of carpets, pottery, turtle eggs, clams, chickens, cream puff pastries, flours and spices. The buses were a sight on their own, colorful with religious quotes painted on the top frame.
Back in Granada, the afternoon sun was hot and I was glad to have seen so much already. On the way to the Bearded Monkey, I ran into Ludwig and we decided to meet up at my hostel after he checked off his own agenda. I still had that bottle of rum and it was his birthday the following day. The hostel was cool and relaxing. Time flew and Ludwig came by. We went up to a church tower that was recommended to me by an older American man who had been traveling in Nicaragua for some time. Another gorgeous sunset came our way before we descended the narrow staircase. We decided to mix the rum into milkshakes after dinner. It was a delicious combination and once the concentration got to be too strong, we bought a refresco de cacao, a cold chocolate drink, to dilute the liquor.
I was really interested in hearing about Ludwig’s experience in Nicaragua. He had been living in a tiny village for six months and even dated a girl from Managua, the country’s main city. It was getting late and I suggested we move from the public park which was getting filled with untrustworthy characters and continue in the Bearded Monkey courtyard. There we joined Matt, an America who had lived in India for seven years and was now in Nicaragua. A few minutes later, Dana and Jill found us. The evening happened quickly and soon it was nearly midnight. It was hard to believe the day started on a boat at 4:30AM. But it was Ludwig’s twentieth birthday and the night rolled on. We joined with Emily from England, and two more travelers and went to a bar with live music around the corner. The place was vibrant and after wishing Ludwig a happy birthday at midnight I took off for my top bunk.
To Isla Ometepe, At Last!
After much appreciated four hours of sleep, I was off to catch the bus to Rivas, a cab to San Jorge, a ferry to Isla Ometepe – Moyogolpa, a bus to Santa Cruz and a pick up truck to Finca Magdalena, my final destination. Surprisingly, my travel time did not exceed nine hours. Even more surprising, I survived the ferry ride.
Lake Nicaragua was storming as far as my untrained eyes could tell. Normally placid, its waves led one unsuspecting tourist to ask if this was an oceanic inlet of some sort. I saw a large ferry unload passengers and briskly walked towards it. Scores of people were getting off and having a few minutes at leisure, I took an opportunity to practice my Spanish and asked to verify the large ferry’s destination. “No, your ferry is over there,” was the unexpected reply. I looked over to see a small, wooden ship, less than half the size the ferry that had just made it across the choppy waters. Well, this was routine, I assured myself, and got on board.
I paid my way and sat in the lower deck next to a large window. Two men came over, picked up my pack and placed it on a wooden platform in the middle of the floor. They smiled and explained it was so it wouldn’t get wet. Next they brought out a thick vinyl fabric and proceeded to cover all the windows on the right side of the lower deck, again, so the water wouldn’t get in. I was starting to feel nervous.
More people boarded and soon we were off. Within seconds, a wave blasted the right side of the ship causing it to nearly tip over and water rushed in through the cracks of the hull. After several minutes, my heart was pounding in pure fear. The waves were passing through on the right side and I was just feet away from the foam of the waves on my left side as the ship tipped over. I leader over and asked a crew member if this was normal. “No,” he said, “Looks like the full moon has the tides going all crazy. It’s never like this. But we’ll make it. If anything, I’ll save you.” It was a swallow, sit down and hope for the best moment and it was exactly what I did. In another twenty minutes, I started feeling nauseous and dizzy. I realized the exhaust was pumping directly into the lower deck which was concentrating the fumes for the lack of open windows. With another hour and a half to go, I staggered to the front of the deck, closed my eyes and waited. When we were no longer being rocked back and forth by the waves and the water wasn’t streaming in the door, I flung it open and sat on the stairs breathing in the fresh air.
I was lucky that a bus was leaving just as I arrived, that is at least until it broke down. I was lucky again when a transportation van came our way and we continued on our way. Two backpackers from Holland rode on the roof of the car with our cargo. Once near Santo Domingo, a local spotted a pick up truck that got us and a female traveler from Germany to our destinations for a hefty price of $5.00. In Nicaragua, that’s a lot of money.
Finca Magdalena proved a true respite from the day’s chaos. With a beautiful view of Volcan Concepcion, home made food served at outdoor benches and a great crowd, I stayed for four days.
Finca Magdalena is situated atop a mountain. One and a half miles down the dirt road is the town. The town is comprised of about three store fronts, one restaurant and two hostels. The restaurant is a spot that is “always windy,” as the owner admits and has several plastic tables and chairs on the dirt floor. In the back, two women cook over an open fire while their children play near by. The storefronts sell homemade bread, vegetables, candy and soda. Up the road is another little front – I call them fronts because they are simply extensions of people’s homes. This one sells bananas, Coke, homemade cookies and bread, high quality Nicaraguan chocolate and homemade peanut butter. The peanut butter was wrapped tightly in plastic inside an ant infested box but it looked darn good. I exclaimed, “Peanut butter!” And both the husband and wife who run the place turned around to look, “What did you say that was called?” “It’s called peanut butter in English,” I replied. “Can you write in on the board outsided?” The couple had a white dry eraser board outside with the English translations of their products. Now peanut butter was one of them!
Maderas is one of two volcanoes on Isla Ometepe. The trail is vertical the entire ascent.
It is really just footsteps that have now eroded enough of the clay soil around rocks and roots to have formed the trail. Midway, a view of Volcan Concepcion and Lake Nicaragua is a sufficient reward. View of Lake Nicaragua and Volcan Concepcion
At the top, a crater lagoon shrouded in mist awaited.
Back to the Border
The border crossing on the western side of Costa Rica proved much more of a hassle than I imagined – four hours of waiting in line in a dusty parking lot without shade. I could only reminisce about the cool, tropical forests of Los Chiles and Rio San Juan.