A couple of years back after she had bought a new world map, my good buddy and fellow travel fan Chloe and I went through a phase of playing a game to see who could name the most countries within a set amount of time. As with any game like that, the secret tactic was to start by naming the most obscure options.
“NICARAGUA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Chloe would burst out within seconds, desperate to get it in there early, and both of us would begin to giggle at the sound of the word. We were both in agreement that ‘Nicaragua’ could probably win the accolade for being the most random sounding country in the World, and neither of us were entirely sure of where it was, let alone how to spell it…
…and I could probably deduce that it was that lack of knowledge that pretty much prompted my intrigue to go there. I think Chloe would probably say the same for herself…
A few months later, it was time for me to book a holiday. I had long been drawn to the idea of central America and the imagery of Mayan temples and cocoa plantations it evoked, but had never quite realised that Nicaragua was a part of it. Looking online, I found a decently priced two week trip with Trek America that could take me through an attractive looking cross-section of the region, starting in Guatemala and ending in Costa Rica, with stays in Honduras and… Nicaragua… along the way. I had to do it.
“I’m going to Nicaragua!!” I informed Chloe over the phone shortly after booking, in a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say. And a few months later, in October 2013, there I was.
Out of the four countries visited on the trip, I could say with a significant level of certainty that Nicaragua was my favourite. We had arrived there by public bus after a torrid journey from Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, a sterile place with one of the highest rates of homicide in the world and where each of us had felt completely on edge. In the middle of the night we had taken taxis to the bus station as the drivers had warned us in a nonchalant manner to, “Yeah keep your heads down. Drive-by shootings.” We had not been sad to leave Tegucigalpa and by contrast, the coastal and charismatic city of León, Nicaragua, felt like a safe haven, and the arrival there had brought everybody back into holiday mode.
The Bigfoot International Hostel, León, oozed an atmosphere of liveliness. We arrived to swathes of backpackers queuing at the bar to purchase dirt-cheap Capirinhas and walls graffiti’d with travel-related quotes, and no sooner had we set down our bags, we were out roaming the cobbled streets to breathe in our first proper breaths of Nicaraguan air.
One of the first things that struck me were the array of colours. Our tour guide – Tim – took us firstly to an indoor marketplace where I was able to name only the minority of fruits and vegetables on display, being particularly in awe of what I will only ever know as being “the particularly large green things.” See photo below:
The more we walked around and saw, the more we began to feel the presence of history. It’s no surprise, given that I had only recently learnt how to spell the name of the country, that I had also had zero awareness of the Nicaraguan Revolution prior to the trip. León was just one of many cities that had experienced an extreme violence in the late 1970’s that had set out to overturn the Somoza dictatorship of that time period, and the Museum of the Revolution was the ideal place to find out more. The museum’s guides – many of whom had been involved firsthand in the violence – regaled their experiences to us as they showed us around explaining the various artefacts, but it was the original graffiti, bullet-holes and photos that probably illustrated their messages most effectively. Following this tutorial – in perhaps one of the more bizarre moments of the trip – the guides took us up a spiral staircase to the roof of the museum where – beyond reach of any grim Western Health & Safety protocol – they allowed us to walk around on the slanted, red corrugated iron sheets that formed the top of the building. It was at that moment that one of the guides gave us an unwitting view of his war-wounded genitalia whilst trying to demonstrate in the absence of words how bouncy the roofing was. He then fell into a fit of laughter upon realising what had happened. It was an unusual end to an otherwise memorable and enlightening museum visit.
You Just Cannot Get BOARD in León
From the educationally extensive, to the physically intensive, our second day in León provided us with the experience that we had all been waiting for from the very moment we had booked our trips – our opportunity to finally engage in an activity that has firmly been labeled as #2 in CNN’s World Bucket List – Volcano Boarding. The opportunity to slide down a volcano on a sheet of second-hand formica in an orange boiler suit is – bizarrely enough – one of the key attractions that brings thousands of tourists to Leon each and every year, and there was no way that we were going to miss out.
We had taken a bus out to Cerro Negro – an active volcano with an altitude of 2,500 feet – which is where the activity would be taking place. As we drew closer my heart began to sink when I realised that within all my excitement, I hadn’t quite factored in the necessary ascent up the volcano that must be done first – on FOOT. It took around an hour for us to walk to the top, holding onto our heavy boards along the way, and despite strenuously trying to disguise my increasingly puce facial tones in front of the dishy Danish activity lead as we slowly made our way up the steep incline, I will admit to having quite severely cursed the existence of angles under my breath on more than one occasion until we reached the peak.
“So, we will walk up the volcano…” ARGH
Similarly as disheartening as the ascent had been watching as all those who had preceded me in taking the plunge trail-blazed down the mountain perfectly at recorded speeds of around 60mph, whilst in scenes reminiscent of when Homer gets stuck in the water-slide during that old episode of The Simpsons, me and my British Pie-body took a little longer to get going, tumbling off the board and having to restart on numerous occasions along the way. But eventually, I was flying, albeit not as fast as some of the more nimbly-framed among the group.
Once all had made their way down the volcano, we piled back into the open-roof truck for congratulatory cans of the Nicaraguan beers – Toña – to enjoy during the rickety ride back to the hostel. In this moment there had been whoops and cheers all round, with the majority feeling proud of their ability to “barricade down the fear factor and slide down the big volcano, man!!!!”
By contrast I was more proud to have managed to get to the top of the sodding volcano in the first place. The unusual manner of descent had seemed like rapidly light relief in comparison…
With a combination of adrenalin and yet MORE congratulatory drinks in the form of complimentary Capirinhas awarded to us by the hostel upon our arrival back, we then all took ourselves off for an evening at the beach where we enjoyed watching a beautiful red sunset dip down into the Pacific Ocean.
Branded in Granada
‘Granada – Nicaragua’. Not be confused with ‘Granada’ – Spain. Or ‘Granada’ – Colorado. Or ‘Granada’ – former production company associated with Coronation Street, or even ‘Grenadine’ – dark red syrup commonly used in cocktails…
Granada’s presence on the trip’s itinerary had caused me much confusion and it was probably only once we had actually arrived there that I was finally certain that this Western Nicaraguan town was an entity completely separate to all of those listed above.
We were only there for one day and I can’t say it was the most memorable of places, but perhaps that’s because there had only really been one thing I’d wanted to do there, and that was to get a new tattoo. Whilst other members of the trip entertained themselves with the likes of paradisal boat rides around some nearby islands, I was getting dropped off on a bustling city-centre street where a knowledgeable local had indicated that there was a reputable tattoo parlour.
The parlour was one medium sized room decorated with peeling dark green paint and aged posters and photographs of the artist’s previous works. His name was Oscar Martinez and he wore a bright orange vest top with a baseball cap on back to front. A plug-in fan sat in the middle of the room next to a lamp and basic wooden desk. It didn’t look like any other tattoo parlour I’d been into before, but I had enough sense to check for at least the fundamentals in health and safety… it must be the Brit inside me!
I asked for a tattoo of the world on my wrist and Oscar duly obliged, but requested that I firstly obtain a picture that he could copy onto my skin, and suggested printing one off in the cyber cafe next door. After doing battle with a stubborn Nicaraguan printer for half an hour I finally had something on paper for him to work from, and returned back to the parlour where Oscar was engaged in inscribing what looked like a female’s name into the muscly bicep of another customer. “This…his girlfriend name”, Oscar filled me in, obviously having caught glimpse of my nosing.
The result of my afternoon with Oscar was not the most accurate image on my wrist – maybe if the ice-caps continue to melt, southern Europe really WILL merge into Africa, whilst poor old UK and Scandinavia more or less disappear altogether – but at least the artwork will always remind me of Nicaragua. Indeed, Oscar had been very proud to accentuate the connecting line between North and South America, smiling out the word “Nicaraguaaaaaaaaaaaa” as he did so. I liked Oscar.
Once the artwork was finished I duly went down the road to the pharmacists to buy some Vaseline and dressing. This brief experience alone was an insightful one; I had not really known what it was I was asking for, and may have struggled to otherwise convey my need for the items I was after had it not been for the help of a local man who provided me with all the Spanish I needed. Whilst we waited for my ticket number to be called out, he had taken the time to ask me a few questions about England (“Manchester United!”), and who I was and why I was in Nicaragua. I didn’t dare begin to explain that the journey may have originated from a silly game I had played with a friend back home…
Walking back along the bustling streets, I passed an elderly lady selling a mixture of confectionary and tobacco. I gave her some Nicaraguan Cordoba in exchange for a couple of chewy fruit suits and a Chupa Chup and then sat in the hot courtyard of a chocolate shop eating Gazpacho.
On this day, I felt like a Nicaraguan.
Oh my, Ometepe…
Our final couple of days in Nicaragua were spent on Ometepe Island, a landmass in the middle of Lake Nicaragua which is notorious for looking like a pair of boobs due to the two large volcanoes – Concepcion and Maderas – that sit either side of the isthmus that divides it. I had read about Ometepe Island in Ryan Murdock’s book, ‘Vagabond Dreams’, and the impression that his romantic accounts of the place had given me were that it was the kind of place where you can go and learn a few powerful lessons in perspective from the natural world, and he was right.
Shortly after arriving, during that transformational time in which sun turns to sunset, sunset turns to twilight, and twilight turns to dusk, we had gone on a nature trail close to where we were staying at Hotel Finca Venezia. If it hadn’t been for the pathways and signage along the trail, I think we could have been forgiven for pondering the idea that we were walking in an area never before traversed by humans. With howler monkeys loudly raking around in the branches above us – and the flocks of glowing fireflies that hovered delicately amidst the trees – I began to feel like an intruder, half expectant that an angry primate might jump onto my head at any given moment. They didn’t, so I guess those particular creatures were the kind who enjoyed having guests, but either way I emerged from the nature trail feeling as though I’d just had an intimate tour of somebody else’s home, and feeling somewhat humbled from doing so.
The following morning, after a somewhat boozy night drinking cans of Tona and eating fried plantain, a local tour guide called Will had taken us around the more human inhabited parts of the island for a history lesson. Ometepe is famed for its archaeology and recent digs meant that we were able to view original ceramics from as far back as the Polychrome period of circa 300 B.C, which is by no means unusual for that part of the world, making Canterbury Cathedral suddenly seem like something built last week…
History lesson over it was time for something less taxing – and more relaxing – on the brain, a kayaking trip along the isthmus of the island and out into the main bowl of Lake Nicaragua. We were fortunate enough to spot lots of interesting wildlife along the way, including crocodiles, Capuchin monkeys, and a whole host of birds (I will not even begin to attempt to identify the particular species). I learnt from an early stage of the activity that trying to time photographs to capture a clear image was nigh on impossible, and that a dozen or so photos of blurred bird legs taking flight weren’t worth the distraction of faffing around with the camera, but here are a selection of my favourites:
That evening, our leader – Tim – lit a campfire on the beach and we all had fun whacking a pinata around and drinking beer under nothing but the light of the moon. I really liked this particular hotel in which we had stayed; most specifically the hammocks overlooking Lake Nicaragua that were set slightly apart from the rest of the complex, enabling a bit of personal peace and quiet whenever it was required. As an introvert who considers alone-time to be a necessary way to recharge, particularly whilst on holiday with people who were strangers 10 days ago, I used to really enjoy taking the odd 15 minutes out on the hammocks, and it was probably during these moments that I most understood writer Ryan Murdock’s sentiments about Ometepe.
The views of Lake Nicaragua from the hammock enabled me to get that peace. The water had seemed so still, and the air had seemed so quiet, yet from my time on the island I knew that both were anything but. The nature trail had shown me that amongst those trees that looked so serene, howler monkeys were partying around manically between the branches, and the kayaking had shown me that the calm of the water belied all that was going on beneath the surface, and that’s without taking into account the popular local legend that a spirit lives in the Lake…
I guess that’s just the power of perspective, making the same things look so, so different when observed from different angles… there had been a lot of that in Nicaragua…