March 15 to 30, 2010
Our second police shakedown happened in Managua, Nicaragua. This time it was a lady cop who claimed I had done something illegal in a traffic roundabout. What exactly, I’m not sure, but she was threatening to keep my driver’s license until I paid the $75 fine to some office in the city. So I played the indignant tourist and told her that I expected such police behaviour in Honduras, but not in a wonderful country like Nicaragua which had gone through a revolution to end corruption like this. The argument fell flat. Next, I played the poor tourist card and told her that the reason we camp and have an old car is because we don’t have a lot of money. Whatever money we had we needed for gas. “What about me?”, she asked. “What am I supposed to do about gas for my vehicle?” I offered her gas from my jerry can, but she refused – she wanted money. Exasperated, I asked her how much. How much did I have? she asked. I told her I had $10, so with resignation, she put her hand out. But as I was digging around looking for some money, I realized that this was bullshit. I turned back to her and told her as much. I need that money myself and wasn’t going to pay. She threatened to bring her chief over, but at that point, I didn’t care. Fed up, she whipped my driver’s license at me and stormed off while calling me something in Spanish. I couldn’t believe it. I had worn her out. It took a half hour of stubbornness, but I was finally free to go. As we drove off, Roz said, “Now she knows what I have to put up with.” I couldn’t help but laugh.
As satisfying as my minor victory over corruption had been, I was pretty beat and needed a break from driving and travelling. This was our third day in Nicaragua and it had been a long, hot slog. The border crossing a few days earlier had been easy, but I got into an argument with a parasitic helper who thought he deserved money from me despite my repeatedly telling him I didn’t want his help. I finally threw him the equivalent of a dollar as we were leaving, which irked him and his compatriots, but I didn’t care. You want to do business with me, do it in an upfront way. They called me something in Spanish and I called them robbers as I drove away. I was through being the polite Canadian. I was starting to feel a little thin around the edges. Unbeknownst to me, I was coming down with traveller’s burnout, the condition that occurs when you don’t give yourself enough time off. But it took me a while to recognize this.
Roz and I spent our first night in Nicaragua in a big agricultural town in the north called Esteli. The town had been a stronghold for the FSLN rebels during the revolution and there were many large wall murals honouring the people’s struggle. There were also vast numbers of bicyclists, the most we had seen yet during our travels. And the roads even had bike lanes – love it! The next day we drove in hundred degree heat to the colonial city of Leon because the Lonely Planet guidebook had described it as a beautiful town. Wrong! It was noisy, dirty and stinkin’ hot. And frankly, we were sick of churches, museums and tributes to martyrs. Burnout again. After a night in an air conditioned hotel room (thank doG for AC!), we left the city unimpressed and swore not to believe anything in Lonely Planet again. The guide had let us down many times before, but this was the last straw.
We left the steam of Leon and made our way towards the (hopefully) cooler town of Masaya. On the way there, we stopped for a swim at Laguna de Xiloa, a volcanic crater lake near Lake Managua. Although it was bathtub warm, it was still refreshing. Drying off, four Managuan guys, slightly drunk, befriended us. We had a quick yak (mostly about baseball, a passion with most Nicas), shared some of their rum and took some pictures of the guys before getting on the road again. We tried to avoid Managua, but even skirting around it, the lady cop snared us in her trap, which delayed us a half hour. That meant that we didn’t get into the working class city of Masaya until dusk. Luckily, we found the Hotel Maderas Inn, which was run by a lovely, hospitable Masayan family. We walked around town, enjoying the slightly cooler temperature, then dined at an excellent Mexican restaurant where Roz had the best enchiladas she’d ever eaten. The next morning in the hotel dining room, we bumped into Lou and Michael, experienced world travellers from Stateside, and talked for hours about life on the road and must-see sites. Michael even gave us his water purifier – I tell ya, travellers are the best peoples.
(ROZ: Masaya was just the transition town we needed to pick up our spirits about Nicarauga. Not too big, not too small, it had a “real” non-touristy feel to it. It also had one of the loveliest, cleanest markets I’ve ever seen, housed inside an old fortress. More importantly it’s where I first tried the guanabana – an ugly looking fruit on the outside (sort of like an overgrown avocado with spikes), but with a pulpy sweet meat on the inside.)
After checking out of the hotel, we drove to the nearby Volcan Masaya Park to see the volcano and possibly camp there. Despite the acrid smell, the views of the smoky crater were stunning, as were the views from another ridge of nearby Lake Managua and the town of Masaya. We decided that camping in the parking lot of the information centre wasn’t very inspiring, so we drove on, hoping to find camping at Laguna Apoyo, a huge crater lake an hour away.
With the help of the GPS, we found an obscure road that took us down to the shoreline of Laguna Apoyo, but it was dark by the time we got there. We bumped around in the dark trying to find a campground, but finally gave up and went to the Monkey Hut hostel instead. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow camping there, so we were resigned to renting a room for the night. That’s when Canadian Angel #1 appeared. Shamus, delivering supplies to the hostel, offered to let us camp at his lodge a few kilometers away. He warned us that it was a rough road, but we told him we didn’t mind – in fact, that just made it all the more intriguing! We followed his truck on a gnarly road that took us through three cattle gates. Just when we started to wonder what we were getting ourselves into, we finally arrived at Apoyo Lodge and Camp (http://www.apoyolodge.com/). We were introduced to Shamus’s parents and their friends, who were visiting from Ontario, and then warmly invited to share a pasta dinner with them. Talk about Canadian hospitality, eh?!
And there we stayed for the next few days just chilling out, swimming in the wonderfully refreshing lake, and reading – the perfect remedy for traveller’s burnout. Shamus and his dad had recently built the beautiful lodge with large private rooms and a camping area, which we felt blessed to have to ourselves. The day after our arrival, Roz joined Shamus and his family for a tour of Granada and a nearby butterfly farm while I stayed back, laid in a hammock, drank beer and did absolutely nothing. It was magic.
(ROZ: And once again, I was thrilled to be surrounded by so many animals – 2 cats, 2 dogs and 2 parrots. One day, Maude dog came swimming into the lake while I was out there and we had a wonderful dance together in the lake. Pure bliss!)
Many days of rest later, Roz and I hit the road again and drove to San Jorge on Lake Nicaragua, where we boarded the Che Guevara car ferry headed to Isla de Ometepe, an island made of two volcanoes, the recently active Volcan Concepcion and the smaller, inactive Volcan Maderas. After an hour long ride in choppy water, we arrived at dusk at Moyogalpa on the west side of the island. Shamus had suggested we stay with friends of his who owned a hostel and campground near Balgue, on the east side of the island, so after devouring a pizza, we went looking for Ben and Sarah’s place. Still not learning from our past mistakes, we drove at night in search of Casa Campestre (http://sites.google.com/site/fincacampestre or http://ometepe.moonfruit.com). The GPS was somewhat accurate and after some missed turns on terrible roads and a few inquiries to locals, we eventually found Ben and Sarah’s home. Ben was surprised to see us at his door – no one had come to their place in five years – but he was happy to direct us to their nearby campground, which actually wasn’t open this year, but would suffice for our needs. The campsite was close to their home, past their banana plantation on a crazy, bumpy road that required four-wheel drive. It had been another long day (and night) of driving and after setting up camp using Yuki’s rear spot light, we slept like logs.
The next morning, after waking up to the horrifically awesome sounds of howler monkeys, Sarah and her dogs came by to say hello. We had a great gab over coffee about her and Ben’s life in Nicaragua since they had left England years ago. We ended up making plans to hike Volcan Maderas with her the next day. Then we drove into the village of Balgue and visited with Ben at their hostel and cafe, Casa Campestre. After enjoying a delicious lunch there, we drove to Ojo de Agua, a dreamy oasis filled with cool water pools, hammocks and relaxing chairs. Just the place to catch up on reading.
The next day we hiked up Volcan Maderas – the first real exercise we’d had in months. On our very early morning walk to Sarah’s, Roz and I spotted a howler monkey in the trees and I took some photos of the reclusive simian. At Sarah’s we met up with our guide, Cristobel, and by 6:30 a.m. we began the hike. It took us four hours of climbing through coffee plantations, light scrub and finally, dense jungle before we reached the summit. It was hard to believe Sarah just had a baby, but she was still super fit from years of hiking and biking. Meanwhile, Roz and I wheezed, grunted and brought up the rear like the couple of out-of-shape fatties we’ve become. But we made it! At the summit – 1,394 metres high – we took pictures of the coast from a fallen tree that allowed us to see above the bushes. There was a moment of panic when the branch Roz was stepping onto broke and she fell over, but she hollered, “I’m okay!” as she clung to her branch, which never detached from the tree. Cristobel pulled her upright and once we realized she was okay, we were all in hysterics. That girl will do anything for a laugh.
(ROZ: I guess I’m what you’d call an unconscious comedian, but I’m always happy to play the clown if it makes people laugh. Sarah was truly in hysterics – something to do with my “I’m okay, I’m okay” assurance in the midst of potential injury. To his credit, Cristobel was ever the gentleman, and only allowed himself a laugh once he saw me laughing at myself. On the other hand, I think I may have shocked our young guide with my “holy fucks” every time we got to a milestone that indicated we still had 3 km to go, then 2, then 1. The last kilometer up the volcano was very steep and muddy, and somewhat technical, but with swearing and grunting I pushed on. Walking back down, I felt smugly satisfied with myself, which soon vanished when we crossed paths with another guide who was making his way up with some take-out lunch for one of the tour groups. These guides were walking up and down this steep 5 km volcano like it was a Sunday jaunt in Central Park. Very humbling … and a reminder of how important it is to find some form of exercise while sitting on your ass all day travelling in a car. But if we had to save up all our exercise for only one volcano climb, this was definitely worth it. Now I can boast that I hiked to the top of a volcanic mountain in a tropical cloud forest on an island in the largest freshwater lake in Central America – where I saw a howler monkey and a flying wild black turkey.)
We descended into the crater and found a lovely muddy lake there surrounded by grassy fields. We ate lunch as we watched at least a dozen other hikers make their way down to the lake. Satiated and rested, we spent another three hours descending the volcano. By the time we got to the Finca Magdelana, a coffee plantation/hostel at the bottom, I couldn’t wait to down a quart of beer. I tell ya, it’s got to be the best taste in the world after a hard, hot hike. The next day was recovery day at the Ojo de Agua pools. Just the thing for our tired legs.
The next day we said goodbye to Ben and Sarah, drove to the other side of the island and had a quick swim in Lake Nicaragua near Charco Verde. Then it was on to Moyogalpa where we checked emails and discovered that one of the intentional communities Roz had researched was 20 minutes away and that someone was there who could show us around. So we drove on and found the entrance to La Perla de Ometepe, a new venture started by some Canadians. The driveway was a lovely palm tree lined road that eventually took us to the grounds of a former orphanage. There, amongst the old buildings and cattle stockades, we found lovely Canadian Angels #2 & #3 – Lucy from BC and Maria from Quebec. Over cold beers, we learned that the community is in its infant stages and that the lakefront property was only purchased last year. The plan is to build an eco-lodge by the lake and use the highlands for its community members’ homes. Roz and I got a tour of the area, which included their new (and already harvesting) organic raised-bed gardens; fruiting citrus and mango trees; a large chicken coop; a cattle yard (to be converted to a swimming pool); a deer pen (with a mob of sweet-eyed Bambis); the ex-orphanage buildings (still incredibly solid structures with running water, to be used as temporary living quarters and eventually converted into a dorm-like hostel); the temporary kitchen with a view of the lake (where the restaurant will be); the gorgeous lakefront area with its large, shade-providing trees and the highlands.
To put it mildly, Roz and I are very excited about this place. We left Vancouver with the idea that, among other things, this would be a journey of discovery for a possible new home. La Perla is the first place we have given any serious consideration to. While it’s not as green and lush as I’d like, Roz keeps reminding me that we were there during the hot, dry season. I look forward to returning on our way back to BC to see it in the rainy season. In any case, we had a wonderful night camping there and enjoyed making a pancake breakfast for Maria, appropriately using the last of our Canadian maple syrup. Anyone interested in learning more about the community can visit their website at: http://directory.ic.org/22248/La_Perla_de_Ometepe
After leaving Ometepe, we made our way to the Pacific Coast and the touristy surf town of San Juan del Sur, full of overpriced restaurants and hotels. We tried to find free camping on the beach, but weren’t thrilled with the security situation, so opted instead to stay in the clean Hotel Europa in town. The next day, we checked out another so-called intentional community, “Las Fincas de Escamequita”, but it was more like a development project than anything else. It had lots for sale near the ocean, but no sense of community or communal vision that La Perla de Ometepe had. Unimpressed, we continued down the coast to Playa Coco, one of the most beautiful and empty beaches we’ve seen since Mexico. Walking on the white sand, we spotted a Canadian flag further up the beach. It belonged to a new restaurant and hotel called Lug’s Place, owned by Robert, a fellow Canuck from Hamilton. He invited us to camp on his property for free. Canadian Angel #4! Like us, he had started on a trip to South America a couple of years ago, but never got past Nicaragua. Now he and his dog, Lug, have set up shop on the beach. What is it about Canadians and Nicaragua? That night, we enjoyed a delicious lobster and steak dinner in his restaurant. What a great final supper in Nicaragua.
Heading for the border, we reflected on why so many people were drawn to Nicaragua. Shamus at Apoyo Lodge, Ben & Sarah in Balgue, Maria and Lucy at La Perla Ometepe, and Robert at Lug’s Place were all looking for an alternative lifestyle and seemed to have found it here. Some loved the climate. Some wanted to get off the grid before the western economy imploded. And some just wanted to find a simpler lifestyle and an affordable place to grow old in. These were all reasons we could strongly identify with.
With visions of Ometepe now swirling in our head, the question arose: Will Nicaragua become our new home too?
END OF PART 18