November has spilled over into December, and with all ten travel-toes itching to tread new turf, I’m off to the enigma that is Nicaragua. Merely mentioning the name will have most likely responding in one of two ways: “Is it safe?” or “Why, what’s there?”. As a professional experience collector I’m on my way to find out!
Sadly, Nicaragua happens to be the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, shunned by most tourists because of its bloody past and unstable political climate. Like Burma, it now teeters between the grime of third world poverty and glimmers of hope, slowly trying to transform itself into a destination for travelers looking to experience something off the beaten track where their dollars stretch appreciably.
My buddy Greg is joining me on this adventure, and traveling overland from Costa Rica in a shared van, we arrive at the sketchy border post of Penas Blancas, or La Frontera as it’s also called. We were warned of the border chaos, but had no idea! This shoddy outpost is the single largest overland drug transit point in the Americas, where an international game of cat and mouse worth tens of billions of dollars takes place with cocaine from Columbia bound for Canada and the US.
About 5 miles before the border we hit the start of a gargantuan line up of 18 wheelers, NICA buses, and cattle trucks; all awaiting inspection before being allowed to cross. This border without order is awash in sundry shysters that would shame a weasel; skilled in the artful extraction of dollars from a smorgasbord of untested victims all potentially ripe for the picking.
There is no bank to purchase the local currency, but we hear a racket coming from a group of sandaled money changers restrained behind a chain link fence topped with barb wire. Bellowing like carnival barkers, they try coaxing us over by waving fistfuls of local cash through ragged holes cut in the fence. With skepticism high, we perform the intellectual surgery of cutting through the math, before exchanging for the local Cordobas. We may have been beat for a buck or two, but these guys no doubt need it more than we do.
Working our way through the dismal tangle of border checkpoints with the speed of a mollusk, it becomes evident that a green thumb is mandatory. Not the digging in the garden kind, but rather a digit busy digging out American greenbacks, to satisfy various border personnel and entrepreneurial ‘fixers’. This fiasco here at dysfunction junction has turned into hours of adversity and angst as we sluggishly muddle our way through the madness and monumental mess of mismanaged mayhem.
At one stage we’re ‘shot’ with a temperature gun that looks like a hair dryer. Oh, I see, with all the pressing problems you got here, you want to check out if we’re hot or not? Moving on, we ransack our wallets again, peeling off more George Washington’s for a third payout to pretentious officials about as friendly as a nest of copperheads. We bite our tongues and ass-kiss our way through until reaching a booth where an aloof uniform smashes down a stamp in our passports as one might splat a poisonous spider. Finally we are in!
Now comes the delicate dance of ‘barguing’ for a taxi, being cautious to avoid any illegal ‘pirate taxis’. The drivers may not wear an eye-patch, but I suspect the name comes from the marauding, pirate-like operators looking to enhance their bounty by using meter-less vehicles to cash-rape and pillage potential passengers!
Seeing me scoff at a few offers, a ‘fixer’ approaches, and for a dollar, leads us to what he claims is an official taxi. We confirm the license plate number before jubilantly vacating the befuddling border to reach the port of San Jorge on Lake Nicaragua; one of the largest lakes in the world, and the lifeblood of this country.
Sadly we just miss the large ferry boat, but are told about a mini-ferry called a ‘launcha’. We ponder this option, concerned by the wind-whipped waters kicking up ocean-like whitecaps. Eager to reach our island destination, we ignore our misgivings and decide to give it a go; but first must write our names, nationality, and age on a clipboard. Perhaps so they can notify next of kin in the event the tragic transport finds its way to the bottom of the lumpy lake? For the staggering cost of $1.35 we’re on our way.
As the water between boat and dock widens, the battered, leaky, and rusted relic tests the limits of its buoyancy, being impossibly overloaded with everything from bananas to bedding and celery to cement. There is little concern for the human cargo compressed together like refugees in an overcrowded lifeboat. Amid noxious diesel fumes, Greg and I are wedged into the belly of the boat, and feeling anxious about capsizing during the stomach-churning crossing now turning into a Nicaraguan nightmare!
Angry waves break through the open windows, soaking passengers and starting to fill the boat. With feet immersed in water, we watch a muscled dude feverishly working a large hand pump to eject incoming water to keep us afloat, and beyond the reach of any bulky bull sharks; a breed notorious for serious attacks on humans. The lack of land is most concerning, and cuddling with strangers in our cramped quarters, getting wetter by the minute, we’re not exactly joining hands for a rousing rendition of Kumbaya!
Far too slowly for our liking, the water-logged coffin bobs about like a bathtub duck, coughing its way across the 17 km of notoriously choppy waters. This very scary ferry has all the appeal of a snake in a sleeping bag, and if they’re looking for a name for it, my suggestion would be ‘Luna Sea’! We try laughing off the potential peril knowing the difference between an ordeal and adventure is attitude, but frankly we both just want back on dry land with a wet beer; pronto. Clearly, this is a case where we should have ‘missed the boat’, rather than the previous more substantial ferry!
After what seems an eternity, the awesome Ometepe suddenly begins to define itself. What in heck is an Ometepe you ask? Why, this mystical wonder is the largest island in the world within a fresh water lake. The barbell shaped island looks Jurassic Park-ish, with a surreal setting featuring a massive pair of volcanoes looming majestically, mysteriously, and somewhat menacingly out of the murky lake.
Maderas Volcano is jacketed in verdant jungle, while the active Conception Volcano’s conical peak is enshrouded in a halo of volcanic steam venting from its crater. Grafted together over the years by lava flows and volcanic activity, they have created the island, and putting the ‘zing’ in amazing, thrust up out of the lake like a playmate’s rack. This island was the location for TV’s “Survivor – Redemption Island”.
Our not so ‘swell’ voyage ends in the port of Moyogalpa, where our lake-sodden souls are granted clemency from the confines of our cheerless compression session! Moyogalpa means “Place of Mosquitos”, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the evil pests are not exactly on the endangered list in this country!
Unburdening our gear at a hotel, we travel in a comical Nicaraguan tuk-tuk up the coast to Punta Jesus Maria; dodging a conglomeration of chickens, bony dogs, oxen, and tufty-eared capuchin monkeys along the way. Reaching our destination we are met by a hostile horde of mosquitos buzzing about like distant chainsaws that seemingly have the deed and title to every square inch of beach.
Punta Jesus Maria is an amazing black sand spit formed by volcanic sediment extending half a kilometer out into Lake Nicaragua. The name comes from the fact that when standing on the spit, one appears to be walking on water. To me, it feels as if I am standing on the back of a giant whale, as waves roll up on both sides of the spit and collide. Now at the ‘Golden Hour’, that perfect hour when sun slides over the horizon, I put the camera through its paces before the onslaught of plasma gulpers have us itching to return to town!
It’s time to change from our lodging in town to a secluded 12.5 acre farm in the country called Finca de Sol. The near self-sustainable ‘farm of the sun’ raises goats, sheep, fruit, and veggies, and offers three separate thatch roofed rustic cabins on the property. This is perfect, as Greg and I can each have our own place.
The bathroom’s unpredictable plumbing is pathetic. Water dribbles out of the faucet like a diuretic hamster; flowing from the sink through a pipe piercing the wall onto a scuzzy shower floor hosting a creepy crawly jamboree of bugs enjoying a meet and greet on the damp tiles! We are also saddled with non-flushing composting toilets that, after use, require hauling out a five gallon pail of rice husks and shoveling them into the toilet to conceal the evidence!
This perverted and piteous potty is potentially a real pain, as going for the husk-scooper one night I come face to face with a large biting centipede and a beetle just slightly smaller than its Volkswagen namesake! Yes, these shitters with critters are enough to give any entomologist a wet dream; especially at night when even more bizarre bugs and other thugs come out to play!
With no air-con, our ‘jungalow’ is muggy, and after the sun says good night it’s too dark to escape into a novel with the room having only one pathetic light bulb with the watt factor of an oven light. However, on the positive side, the views are amenable as the location is in a valley between the two stunning volcanos. It feels like glamorous camping, which even with the un-dapper crapper, I find an acceptable tradeoff; so long as the simmering volcano behaves itself!
For breakfast we wander 350 meters up a path to the main house, where an outside table with tree-top views buzzes with both conversation and huge pollen-swollen bees exploring the flowered vines. A pandemonium of green parrots frequently wing by overhead squawking out their morning regards.
Today’s forecast is for mostly hiking – with a good chance of rum. Our target is the Maderas Volcano, and heeding good advice we’ve hired a guide to show us the lay of the land. A few of deaths have occurred on the volcano and we don’t fancy padding the statistics. Starting in a thicket of plantains, the terrain soon gives way to cloud forest as we clamber up muddy corkscrew paths to the higher elevations of the volcano.
We meet several varieties of the 84 species of ants in the country; including leaf-cutter ants lugging leafy loads, and a bugger big enough to leave footprints and inflict pain similar to a scorpion which locals call the ‘King of Sting’! Also, we pass a roaming battalion of thousands of cleaner ants resembling a black blanket floating along over the forest floor as they lay waste to anything in their path.
We’re fascinated not only by their sheer numbers, but also by the wily little birds hopping through the bushes above the ants, looking for any morsels of prey flushed out by the advancing swarm. At a termites nest I stop for a protein fix, but unsurprisingly find they taste a lot like licking lumber!
Our guide tells us a bizarre fact about the island’s lethal coral snake, whose only predator is the Armadillo, or “little armored one”. According to the guide, these bony critters have been known to kill snakes by launching themselves in air and then severing the snake with the edge of their shell on landing! Our guide swears he has seen this happen, but personally, I’m convinced this teller of tales must have been seriously sozzled on some kind of jungle giggle-juice at the time of his sighting!
Catching our breath at the top of the volcano we enjoy the jungle vistas below. On our descent, butterflies flutter past us like iridescent space aliens, and monkeys cavort about in the trees. The best sighting however is a two meter long Oriole snake that is a flashy dude dressed in a striking yellow and black striped suit. The slender serpent slithers silently through the trees beside us before descending to ground.
After our four hour hike we’re joined at lunch by friendly wild parakeets pecking at our errant crumbs. Greg heads back to his cabin, but having not yet satisfied my lust for dust, I rent a bike to further explore. Out in the boonies I stop at a little shack to watch scruffy little kids kicking a soccer ball, about as a puppy and curly-tailed piggy curiously look on. The ragamuffins at first seem scared, but then get all giggly when I dismount and join them. Even mom and toothless grandma lean out the open door to share a smile.
Riding the islands rocky paths requires good balance and regular dismounts in order to avoid lumbering brahma bulls, so I head for the lake to try cycling a sandy shore shared by hundreds of white egrets. Grunting through the sand, I find a couple of roaming pigs participating in a little grunt-fest of their own while rooting around in random garbage washed ashore by the winds. A few hours later I rejoin Greg for happy hour and we promptly participate in the murder of a small bottle of rum costing a whopping $2.50.
Nicaragua is responsible for some of the world’s best rum, and they have a proverb: “Hay tres desportes en Nicaragua: Beisbal, Mujeres, y Ron”. Translation; “There are three sports in Nicaragua: Baseball, Women and Rum.” Well, two out of three ain’t bad; I never was much of a baseball fan!
Greg and I need food, and our plan is an hour hike to Cafe Campestre in the neighboring village of Balgue. Out in the boondocks, the unpaved road is smothered in blackness except for the occasional clusters of fireflies pulsing like demented little Christmas lights. Luckily I have a tiny flashlight to help us navigate.
Reaching our destination and draining a few dangerously large bottles of Victoria Beer, I attempt to order dinner using my smattering of Spanish; praying I haven’t just accidentally requested fried cockroach! After a satisfying meal we adventurously head home in the inkiness of the night, and safely reaching the farm’s gate, share a fist-bump in celebration of our Ninja nocturnal navigation.
As I crawl into bed I notice a frightful spider about the size of a Frisbee clinging to mosquito netting above my pillow. Unsure of the eight-legged intruder’s intentions, and taking no chances of the sucker ending up in my underwear, I shoot out my palm in a rugby style straight-arm and turn my vanquished foe into an unsavory smear. No doubt about it, Nicaragua is the place offering the most crawlers for your dollars!
For something different today we’re off to Kayak the Rio Istrian, a small estuary meandering inland from Lake Nicaragua. We launch beside a few gossiping gals waist deep in the lake scrubbing their laundry on smooth rocks imbedded in mounds of cement. This is a homemade ‘Nicaragua washing machine’, as people here are desperately poor, with few being able to afford electricity let alone a real washing machine.
Kayaking towards the active volcano looming ahead, we glide into the entrance of a swamp-like habitat home to caimans, turtles, monkeys, and birds. After a good explore, we paddle back up the lake into a headwind creating a real workout for me after I snap off my kayak’s fickle steering rudder pedal.
This paradisiacal island of Ometepe boasts to be the “Oasis of Peace”, and discounting the getting here, I would have to concur! It does seem quite ironic however, that such a peaceful place lies in the shadow of an active volcano. In any case, it’s time to re-cross the massive lake back to the mainland. This time however, we’re definitely going to wait for the large ferry, hoping to save ourselves a shipload of grief!
Strong winds make docking tricky for even the big ferry and puts us behind schedule. Rushing about after disembarking I confirm the fact I cannot fly. In an epic stumble, I introduce myself to ‘Mr. Gravity’, donating a strip of epidermis to the ground. Damn, now it’s not the boat that’s leaking; it’s me!
Greg is guffawing over my clumsiness, while I futilely try convincing him that the ground looked a little sad and I just decided to give it a hug! Alas, recovering from my ‘random gravity check’, we locate transport and head upcountry. Our first impression of Granada is all the charming little houses clothed in cheerful shades of paint. Adding to the quaintness is a glut of horse drawn carts clomping along slender streets back dropped by the imposing turmeric coloured Granada Cathedral.
In contrast, harsh poverty and thuggery are quite apparent in the graffiti-strewn city of Managua. Many of the windows and doors are fortified with burglar bars and sometimes armed guards, with the lamentable livability further evidenced by men toting rifles in the back of pickup trucks patrolling the streets. I doubt many would argue that repellent Managua is the lump of dog-shit on the carpet of Nicaragua.
We move on to the Nicaragua’s second largest city, the colonial masterpiece of Leon; reportedly the hottest city in Central America. Our arrival coincides with the Immaculate Conception holiday, and the Central Square is awash in revelry, with a surplus of munchkins gyrating about in wild, oversized costumes.
Greg decides to head off on a rum factory tour, but concerned about taking up residence should I decide to join him, I opt to spend the afternoon wandering about town to see what other mischief I can muster up. At Leon Cathedral, the most prominent of the 18 churches in town, I withdraw my camera to shoot the large stone lions outside before squeezing sideways up a measly stone staircase to walk barefoot on its stunning white domed roof for a view of the big bronze church bells, surrounding volcanos, and the festive town.
At long last the day of reckoning has arrived, and it’s time for the cockamamie reason we’ve come to Leon. In denial of being deep into my sixties, today’s mission is to face my fierce and appease my adrenaline cravings by tackling the latest and most unusual adventure sport to erupt in Nicaragua; volcano boarding!
To accomplish this, we must make our way to the ominous Cerro Negro Volcano. Yes, those unpredictable things with lava inside! This one just happens to be the youngest and most active volcano in Nicaragua. I mean, let’s face it, extinct volcanoes can be interesting, but active ones – now those are seriously exciting!
This dare-devilish ‘sport’ is prone to some rather nasty accidents, and Greg, ever the sensible one, wants no part of the absurdity other than as a spectator. Personally, I find secure and predictable a bit of a snore; but then to each his own. Ruminating on many of my most memorable adventures, I realize they all contained the same ingredients: a splash of anxiety, a squirt of adrenaline, and a dash of uncertainty.
Climbing into a van, we join six other world travelers also up for the thrill of sliding down an active volcano. I probably should grow up, but I just don’t want to feel rushed into it! Sitting on the hard inflexible seats we’re tossed about like lottery ping pong balls during a twenty mile drive to the intimidating mountain. Ah yes, testosterone; the male hormone responsible for the stupidest shit in otherwise normal men.
Due to recent seismic activity, the Nicaraguan army has decreed a maximum stay of 1 ½ hours on the mountain, and arriving at the base we’re required to sign in, providing our names, age, and country before being allowed to proceed. No doubt authorities again want the ability to contact next of kin, in case she blows! I’m noticing this is a country that seems real big on writing down our names in little books.
Hoping the mountain Gods will be kind, I take a definite detour off the road to maturity, and climb the shoe-lacerating mountain packing my board and kit bag. The desolate mountain of black volcanic scree has slightly less than bugger-all in terms of vegetation and looks eerily like an alien planet. With deodorant failing, we reach the summit, where a hat-snatching wind attacks my board as if it were a sail.
Gases smelling like a skunk’s butt crack steam up out of sinister ground too hot to touch on this very active volcano; reminding me of the fearsome power simmering beneath our feet. Now I’m no volcanologist, but I reckon the sooner I put an end to this steamy affair the better! With safety first and sexy second, I suit up in a dreadful looking green and yellow jumpsuit, along with knee and elbow pads. A pathetic set of eye goggles completes my unattractive ensemble and leaves me resembling a ginormous frog eyed parakeet.
The instructor offers a brief ‘crash course’ on negotiating one of the world’s most unpredictable landmasses. Glossing over the downsides, his spiel is basically to hang on for dear life, and try not to touch the brakes in the unstable scree. This is actually quite easy, since there are no brakes; unless, of course, you want to dig in your feet and risk snapping them off at the ankles!
He also advises keeping the goggles on to protect the eyes from the bombardment of bits of volcanic rubble and ash, and not to open our mouths for the same reason. Apparently, he has no idea how difficult it is to scream with your mouth closed! Elated to be just a spectator, Greg stands by simply shaking his head.
My mode of ‘transportation’ for this mission is a makeshift sled consisting of a four foot piece of plywood with a slab of Formica nailed underneath the sitting area to increase speed for the dumb-ass sitting on it. A piece of rope attached to the other end to act as a grip. Now, it’s one thing to scale a volcano, however it’s something else entirely to hurtle down one while sitting atop a collection of construction scraps!
Our guide informs us the speed record for this insanity is 85 km per hour, which has my sense of achievement from reaching the summit now displaced by anxiety, with gusts up to panic! I butt-scoot my volcano board up to the precipice, pondering the fragility of the flesh and quality of care in a Nicaraguan emergency room. Peering down the perilously steep slope I see the tininess of the van far, far below, looking about the size of a fruit fly’s scrotum. It’s no longer butterflies in my stomach; it’s more like Pterodactyls!
Adrenaline is surging, and I’m wondering how a senior staring down the barrel of old age could voluntarily put himself in such a situation! My body is taut, displaying the classic symptoms of impending menace. Arm hairs standing up – Yup. Elevated heart rate – Present. Butt cheeks clenched – Check. Nervous as a sword swallower with the hiccups, I try channeling my inner Evil Knievel, and hoping the volcano isn’t in the mood to regurgitate its molten innards, let go of my tether to sanity and launch myself over the edge.
With my anus puckered to the size of a raisin, this human ‘meat-eorite’ plummets 2,830 feet down the mountain with the goggles pressing into my face so tight I’m sure it’s going to take a plastic surgeon to remove them. The velocity ferocity is unnerving as the volcano blurs past, and chased by a billowing cloud of lava dust thrown up in my wake, I’m squeezing the rope like it’s a week old lemon. The last time I was this nervous was climbing out of a perfectly healthy plane over Hawaii; clinging like a lamprey to the wing strut and praying whoever packed the parachute strapped to my back wasn’t pickled when doing so!
Knowing my bad ankle can’t withstand any serious force I hang on with a grip born of panic, and it feels as if my blood has been replaced by a six-pack of Red Bull. Any notion of a graceful descent quickly evaporates with my body now an untechnical display of limbs flailing about like an overzealous symphony conductor!
Amid the pummeling of my backside and facial bombardment by the little lava rocks, my uncensored gust of expletives are quickly drowned out by the deafening noise of the sled bulleting over the rocks. My main concern right now is skin; or rather lack of it. Skin may indeed be the body’s biggest organ, but I’m rather squeamish about ending up in a shred-fest and painting the harsh mountainside with my epidermal layer!
Spasmodically jerking about like a laboratory frog, I suddenly have a Eureka moment, realizing that man is not meant to engage in such bizarre modes of transportation. Yes, I know; many stand in awe of my insights and instinctive grasp of a situation. It’s probably my age that tricks people into thinking I’m an adult!
Against all odds, I somehow manage to remain on the board all the way to the bottom of the mountain. The board is smoldering hot from the friction generated by the speed over the black rocks which reach scalding temperatures under the vicious Nicaraguan sun. Hoo-frickin-ray; I’m unable to contain my glee in avoiding orphaning any of my limbs, and knowing I won’t be requiring 24 x 7 care or a disability parking badge!
Time to climb up – about 45 minutes; time to get down – about 45 seconds! No question; of the 35,000,000 minutes I’ve spent on this big blue marble, this ranks right up there as one of the most memorable! The mountain’s ash has invaded every nook, cranny, and orifice; insinuating I’ve spent the day coal mining. I can’t help but notice that without my goggles I’m now a photographic negative of the Lone Ranger.
Driving back from our mountain folly with the van windows down, we are ambushed on the edge town. One of our guys takes a hit in the neck and I’m shot in the shoulder. Fortunately for us, this is not the start of another brutal Sandinista uprising, as the ‘sniper’ happens to be a mischievous little ten-year old with a skookum water rifle! Yes, this is only a ‘drive-by watering’, which dresses everyone’s face in ear to ear smiles! So, did I enjoy my exhilarating day? You bet your ‘ash’ I did!
With holidays winding down, I realize there is one thing I almost forgot mention. You might be shocked, but I’m going to be traveling back to Canada with a stunning 18 year old beauty named Flor, whom I’ve met here in Nicaragua. My intuition tells me that she and I are going to make a perfectly compatible couple.
Though her early years were somewhat rough as she rum-aged in the outskirts of town, she managed to turn a corner, becoming more and more refined through the years. I find myself thoroughly smitten by her honey amber color, wonderful legs, and delicate silky smoothness.
Yes, this full-bodied golden Goddess has indeed matured into one very tasteful and sexy package. How she made the transition I’m not sure, but I’m certainly eager to get to the bottom of it. Frankly, I don’t know how long our relationship will last, but I’m surely looking forward to many a lip-lock with her, and savoring the desirable Ms. De Cana’s warmth on those especially chilly Canadian winter nights awaiting back home.
In a remarkable twist of fate, my buddy Greg fell hopelessly in with love with her identical twin sister; and the two of them eloped back to Canada last week. Age is just a number and totally irrelevant, unless of course you happen to be a bottle of rum! Oh, and just for the record; you do of realize that Flor De Cana is Nicaragua’s finest rum, right?
Alas, with my Nica days now concluded, it’s time to get on the saddle and skedaddle. While Nicaragua may be a little gritty and rough around the edges, I find the geographical wonders of its volcanoes, lakes, and rainforests awesomely brilliant. Combined with the fact it has not yet been spoiled by mass tourism, there is certainly a lot to love from a country trying to embrace the transition from revolution to evolution through an injection of backpacking tourism.
I’ve always believed that travel breathes life into life, making it one of the few things you can buy that actually makes you richer. This intriguing country is certainly no exception. So thank you for your enriching friendship Nicaragua, I have absolutely adored our time together.
Mark Colegrave December 2014