For our journey from Guatemala to Nicaragua, we’d booked a premium bus, the company called, ‘King Quality’ purely because we were going through two countries (Honduras being particularly dangerous) and also because the journey time was 22-hours – a long journey by anyone’s standards – anyway the bus was great – it was like being in business class – leaving Guatemala and entering El Salvador was a doddle, as the operator handled all your paper work and documentation, the same applied for Hondurans. Except after crossing the border, the bus was stopped and all the men were asked to get out the bus, heavily armed with guns by their side, the Policia lined up all the men, including Tom and carefully double checked all the men’s passports with their photos. Now presumably the prison escapees they were hunting aren’t Caucasian, but they still studied Tom’s passport for a good 30 seconds. Thankfully he didn’t fit the profile and safely back on the bus, he told me he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with a face full of machine gun!
Entering Nicaragua, we all had to get off while the bus was checked, then we had to all line up individually whilst all our bags were checked, we had were all told to line our bags up on a long table and open them, now we both have backpacks, which are so stuffed with items you can’t rummage around in them, anyway when it was our turn the Policia literally patted the bag – there was no way he could’ve found anything from doing that – they also failed to look through my handbag which was still on my shoulder and also Tom’s rucksack which was still on his back… After crossing the border, it was then another four hour drive before we arrived in Managua at gone midnight.
As we were arriving so late, we’d arranged for the guy (Jose) we were staying with through Airbnb that night to meet us at the bus station, as we didn’t know where we were going, and from what we’d read the city was meant to be riddled with crime. After meeting us we walked a few blocks to where he lived, and he assured us that Managua was a safe city, one of the safest in Central America.
The next day we got to know Jose, a fascinating guy from Costa Rica, who has lived all over the world, and now works in Coffee – designing an online platform where farmers can easily sell their coffee beans themselves to manufacturers, hence cutting out the middleman, so more money goes to the farmer – we could have spoken to him all day. After a few cups of coffee tea made for us by his daughters- yes you heard me right ‘coffee tea’, we sampled two varieties, the coffee leaves themselves, and just the blossom from the flowers of the coffee plant, they were both lovely, light and refreshing with a hint of coffee. He ran some errands with us, so we didn’t get lost in the city, getting food and money then directed us to the local bus station, where we picked up a bus to take us to Leon – we worked out it cost us around two dollars each for a two hour journey – so cheap!!!
Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua and the oldest, with colonial streets and the infamous Leon Cathedral – it was a bustling city, with a really quaint feel to the place.
Tom had read about Volcano boarding, which if you haven’t already figured out is racing down an active volcano, which could erupt at ANY time on a piece of wood, it’s basically like riding down a sand dune, however you slide on dust and rock. The most popular place to do this is Cerro Negro, born in 1850, it is Central America’s youngest volcano and one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes. Rising out of emerald green forest, the black slopes of Cerro Negro create a bizarre contrast with the surroundings.
Arriving at base camp, we were given a backpack which had our protective jump suit in, googles and gloves, we had decided to do the activity/trip with Quetzaltrekkers – a not for profit organisation – with all the proceeds going to helping disadvantaged kids in the area! We were then passed our boards, so with our boards placed behind our backpacks on our backs, we set off on the 50 minute walk to the top of the volcano – it had stunning vistas, and it was a little on the windy side, so windy in fact you were knocked off your feet a number of times.
At the top we put on our jumpsuits and lined up to go down the volcano – now for some reason in my mind, I thought it wouldn’t be steep – my god, how wrong I was – it was steep – very steep… We watched as others went down first, some picking up speeds of 30kph or more – by the way, the record is 90kph – now if you come off at that speed you are going to do some serious damage, as you’re basically boarding on fragments of rock… Taking my turn, I tried to go down at a steady pace, but it was so easy to pick up speed regardless of how much you dug your feet into the ground – problem being, the more you dig your feet in the ground, the more spray of dust and rocks you get in your face and at that speed it was like glass hitting your face. On stopping my whole face was black, it was in my eyes, my nose, my bra every orifice you could image – Tom had a similar experience, however he returned up the volcano again for a second go, which he says was much better than the first, as the path had been well trodden from all of our previous runs down….. We both agreed that it was an experience – and it’s not everyday you get to say that you’ve boarded down an active volcano!!! The downsides, Tom cracked the screen of his phone, rendering it unworkable and I broke my sunglasses (luckily the cheap ones)
Returning back to Leon we jumped on a bus to Leon’s nearest beach, to a small fishing village called Las Penitas, Tom had sourced an airbnb that boasted the best views on the beach – it didn’t disappoint – wow it was simply stunning, I honestly think I found a little slice of heaven… we were right on the beach, with our door opening right onto the sand, with our own private terrace with hammocks and rocking chairs, and our bedroom windows opening right onto the ocean view… Of all the coastlines we have visited, we agreed that this was definitely one of the most stunning – the rolling waves of the pacific ocean never got tiring.
On one of my many cool offs in the sea, I wandered in with my RayBans on, BIG mistake, turning my back for a second, a huge sneaker wave, swept me off my feet, the RayBan disappeared… lost to the ocean – may I add that’s two pairs of sunglasses down in two days. Luckily I was OK, a scratch to the chin, but nothing more – however for the next few days, I kept my eyes peeled thinking they’d wash up on the shore – they didn’t!
Whilst on the beach we bumped into Eric, a San Francisco dweller, we’d met on the volcano boarding trip – apart from dipping in the ocean, attempting to surf, all three of us just sat at a hotel called Hotel Playa Roca (also a place we ended up staying for two nights, after being turfed out the airbnb, because they were booked up) for the four days, gazing out onto the ocean, drinking Tona (Nicaraguan’s national beer) and watching as the colours of the sky changed with each sunset we watched set in the sky…
After tearing ourselves away from the beautiful beach and surf of Las Penitas, we jumped on a bus to Esteli, renowned for its political conflict, mass demonstrations and a place where the most blood was shed during the revolution.
The buses are brilliant in Nicaragua, old USA school buses, that are now used as public buses. The drivers pump out the tunes, we’ve had everything from an 80’s ballad journey to a Celine Dion journey. Tickets are purchased on the bus, and you are packed in like sardines – at every stop, street vendors jump on board and try to sell you things, shouting down your ears, startling you – selling everything from cakes, plates of home cooked meals, popcorn, nuts, bags of juices, you name it, you could probably get it. On most occasions I opted for the salty popcorn at 0.05 pence a bag, tom of course opted for the cakes…
The street food in Nicaragua was amazing, one day we sampled, yucca root in a cheesy like sauce, served with shredded salad and pork, all wrapped in a banana leaf, other delights included a pastry that was deep fried and inside was rice and meat, again this was served with shredded salad an a spicy sauce.
Eric joined us for the trip North, and we used the place as a base to get to Somoto Canyon, a two hour bus journey north, where we bouldered, jumped, swam and walked through the idyllic 12km canyon, it was beautiful.
It took a bit of courage to jump off the the sheer rock faces, but once you’d done the first, they got easier. There was a 20 metre cliff you could jump off, but our guide advised us against it, as he said you can do damage to your back, not that I was going to do it anyway, but Tom was game. On completion we went to a home-stay, where we were cooked a traditional Nicaraguan food, chicken, and Gallopinto beans… Dreading the long bus journey home, we were offered a ride on in the back of someones pick up as he was heading through Esteli, we all accepted and jumped in the back, the wind rushing in our hair… he drove fast, and overtook, it was a hair raising experience.
On returning to Esteili, we stayed another night and then headed further North to Matagalpa, famous for growing coffee, and known as the “Pearl of the North”. It was refreshing cool, as it was high up in the mountains, we didn’t do a great deal here, chilled and worked, as well as visiting the coffee museum to read the history of Matagalapa coffee producers …
All seemed safe in the the town of Matagalapa, until one morning we bumped in to a guy from the States, who was living out there, owned a coffee plantation in the hills and had just planted his first crop. Anyway he was telling us about him having to buy a gun, as burglaries of farms was high, as was the stealing of working cattle – he’d come across many machete wielding maniacs – anyway that wasn’t the half of it, he then went on to tell us that a bus, just last week, was held up by a man with an AK47, he took the money from the bus driver, and anything the passengers/tourists had, whilst also telling them to all take their trousers off… Crazy hey… anyway we lived to tell the tale…
On talking to him, we spoke of a walk we were planning to do, however he advised us a against it, as it went through some pretty poor barrios, instead he recommended one he does frequently, so when the rain past we set out up one of the hills to get a view of the town, a great vista that overlooked coffee plantations and dwellings as far as the eye can see – and thankfully we got back in one piece…
After saying goodbye to Eric who was heading back to the states the next day, we jumped on a bus to Granada, a city with colonial-era architecture, we stayed here for only one night using it as a base to visit we used this as a base to visit Masaya volcano, an active volcano which last erupted in 2003 and continually emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas.
We contemplated going to Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, however the 5 hour boat ride put us off, and the surroundings would’ve been similar to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, so we decided to take a bus down to Rivas, and then onto San Juan del Sur… Straight away we arrived here, we were back on the backpackers route, having strayed off it for the past week, lots of bars, lots of tours, lots of gringos and an inflation in prices… We stayed in some mid range accommodation for one night, as we were planning to head to Playa Maderas so we could get a final glimpse of the Pacific and take to the surf a few more times. On entering the accommodation, there was a toilet in the middle of the room, and on drawing the curtains, we realised there was non, instead there was reflective glass in them, however they’d managed to put them on the wrong way round, so we could’t see out, but everyone could see through… how we laughed!
The next day we got the local shuttle to Casa Maderas, an eco lodge, where we stayed for 4 days, it was the nicest accommodation we’d stayed in for a while, it had a pool and we stayed in the bungalow suite a the top of the hill overlooking the jungle, it was bliss and in the morning the howler monkeys were on hand to wake you up and remind you where you were. They had a pavilion that overlooked the jungle, so I manged to squeeze in some early morning yoga class, whilst my body woke up to the sounds of the jungle. The beach was a 15 minute walk away and the surf was good, so we spent most of our days there sharing a board and being in the sea (Tom more so than me!).
After four glorious days here, we thought it was time we headed to Costa Rica!!