Nicaragua

Trip Start Feb 04, 2014
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Trip End May 21, 2014


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Flag of Costa Rica  , Alajuela,
Friday, April 25, 2014

It was somewhere in Honduras that we stopped saying to people who asked, "We're going to Panama. Well. Maybe. If we can. Vamos a ver. We’ll see." And started saying, “We’re going to Panama City.” And after we made the long climb to the border at Los Manos in Honduras, passed through without any trouble, and started gliding down the other side toward the Nicaraguan lowlands, we really thought we could do it. Any distance seems possible when you’re soaring downhill.

Our first positive impressions of Nicaragua were influenced by a combination of the heady “we can do this!” feeling, the lovely countryside we were descending into, the good smooth road, and the cleaner roadsides than in Guatemala and Honduras—there seemed to be a lot less plastic garbage, although it may have been because much of the vegetation at the road’s edge had just been burned off, taking the plastic garbage with it. Another factor was our belief that Nicaragua has a lower crime rate than other Central American countries. And because we had entered territory loyal to the Sandinistas, Dan was constantly being cheered on by signs on poles and cliffs and billboards: “Vive Daniel!”(The signs were, of course, for the other Danny, Daniel Ortega). That first northern stretch few vehicles passed us (perhaps partly because of the Semana Santa—Easter Week—holiday). The valley got hotter as we descended, reminiscent of a summer BC interior scent and feel and landscape, dry pines, rolling hills.

We had a day and a half of this tranquility riding to the junction with the Pan American Highway. All the little towns along the way were completely shuttered up because of the holidays, and I felt lucky each time we found a lone fruit seller or an open café in a gas station. Perhaps because of the holidays, even the Pan Am Highway was relatively peaceful and still scenic with now dry and brown rolling hills. Cyclists travelled the road on mountain bikes in various states of repair (was that my bike squeaking, or his? I found myself wondering a few times). Kids walked to river balnearios (swimming spots) with their towels and thermoses.

Out of Esteli we navigated a road that was mainly flat with some ups and downs that were so much easier than the long hills in the highlands of Guatemala and Honduras—and then we were, amazingly, looking down on Lago Managua. I felt like we could see our way to Panama from here—and we could, in intent if not with our eyes.

Then we coasted down to the lake, on a mountain road buffeted by strong winds. I felt a bit apprehensive to be coming down to the flatlands out of the hills, but it wasn’t as hot as I feared (33 degrees, but felt like less as we were travelling fast downhill). Finding no hotels at our planned destination, we continued on to Tipitapa, riding the last 20 km at what felt like high speed, powered on “Raptor,” the locally available energy drink.

We stayed at a hotel in Tipitapa run by a warm and welcoming guy called Luis, whose attention to detailed care for his guests I much appreciated. While we were enjoying a divine fish supper at a table set in his leafy garden where birds flitted about, he stopped by our table. “I have to tell you,” he said, “that sitting at the table beside you is Carlos Mejia Godoy. We Nicaraguans think of him as a cultural treasure. Let me introduce you.” And the next moment, we were arm in arm with this Pete Seeger of Nicaragua, who played a central cultural role in the Sandinista revolution with songs of support for workers and revolutionaries. He also wrote the words and music for a Catholic mass for Nicaraguan workers, Misa Campesina Nicaragüense, based on liberation theology, which gained widespread underground popularity despite its first performance in 1975 being broken up by the dictator Somoza’s National Guard and its subsequent prohibition on ever being played in the Catholic Church by the then-Bishop of Managua. Dan and I were vague on his fame at the moment of meeting him, but as soon as he departed the restaurant and even as he was getting into his car, we enjoyed a little You-tube concert of his on Dan’s iPhone.  You just never know when you’re going to be blessed by a brush with greatness.

For various reasons (escaping Tegucigalpa, the unfriendliness of towns completely shut down for Semana Santa, and the ferry schedule), the next day was our ninth in a row on the bikes since Gracias, Honduras, many of them long climbing days. We planned to reach Granada and then take a break of several days on Ometepe Island. It was only 40-odd km to Granada, but 40 km when you’re tired might as well be a hundred. We dragged ourselves away from Luis’s haven of a hotel (he wasn’t there at breakfast, but he called to wish us farewell on his way to the coast to get more fish for his special fish dinners). We found that luckily, the road seemed to slope slightly downhill most of the way and we had a cross-tail wind.  We stopped for our morning energy drink, but one small “Gladiator” didn’t have much effect. We needed a booster, so ordered a large “Raptor” on ice to share. Looking at our photo with Carlos Mejia Godoy taken the night before, Dan said sadly, “Well, we look good; too bad we feel like shit.” Fuelled on caffeine and sugar (and who knows what other stimulants), we managed to arrive in Granada around mid-day.

We didn’t stay at my first choice for a hostel (for the “mature” crowd), but where we ended up thanks to a charming tout was where we were meant to be—Erin and Rajel, two cyclists from Vancouver, were staying there. They started off from Vancouver with another couple in September, and are also heading for Panama City. Until now, we had met only one other cycle tourist since we left Cancun. He was from San Diego, also on his way to Panama, and we met him in Tulum and again in Belize. All the way through Guatemala and all the way through Honduras, we didn’t see one other touring cyclist. I was thirsty for their stories and experience. We talked about things no one else would be interested in—how do aerobars work? What kind of shirt works best for cycling in the heat? Where did they get that new Schwalbe Marathon tire? Being able to connect with other cyclists made our goal seem more plausible, validated. We really are going to cycle to Panama—no big deal; we’re not the only ones.

The next day we caught the ferry to Isla de Ometepe, an island of two volcanoes in the middle of Lago Nicaragua. On landing, we met Maggie and Bryan, the other cyclists from Vancouver (East Van, we’re neighbours!); they are cycling all the way to Ushuaia and were now rejoining the other two for a few days in San Carlos at the south end of Lago Nicaragua, where we would be going in a few days.

We cycled away from Altagracia on a brick road, new since my last visit here over ten years ago, and found ourselves a guesthouse on Playa Santo Domingo, the long beach between the two volcanoes. For two days, we stayed put, napping in hammocks, insulated from 37-degree heat by the shade and from insects by the wind from the lake. It was exactly what we needed to do, although I was fighting that tyrant FOMO again. On the day we checked out of our beachside guesthouse, we put all our bags back on our bikes and set off to circumnavigate Volcan Concepcion on the (long) way back to the ferry we were going to catch in the evening. This was a great chance to see the live volcano from all its sides and throughout the day as the cloud on top gradually came unsnagged, revealing Concepcion’s pointy tip. We had a superb lunch at the Cornerhouse Café in Moyogalpa on the west side of the island, although we might as well have been at 4th and Vine in Kitsilano—my salad was arugula, with tender chicken, papaya, and toasted almonds on top. Dan had an omelette, with hearty slabs of toast and herbed potatoes. We had fruit smoothies, followed by an iced latte and a really moist carrot cake. This was not Nicaraguan food, but we really craved a break from eggs, salty cheese, sour cream, and gallo pinto (rice and beans). Regretfully we pushed off from this lunch spot. Around 2:30 the brick road came to an end and we learned what our hotelier meant when he said the road around the volcano was partly “rustica,” i.e., a rough and rutted road with loose stones. It was slow going for the last 10 km on this road, but it was beautiful countryside and closest to the edge of the volcano we’d been all day. Around 3:00 Dan’s tire went flat and we spent a couple of patches to repair it before giving up and putting in a new inner tube, losing an hour. Then we had to rush to catch the ferry from Altagracia which we understood would leave at 6:00—but it didn’t leave until 10:00 p.m.  The baggage checkers and ticket takers were there, though, so it was a leisurely and relaxed process over the next four hours awaiting the boat. When the boat arrived, about eight men started to work on loading the cargo, a large part of which was stacks of plantains that they threw onto the deck, so that soon our bikes were lost behind them. No delicate bananas, these.

At 5:30 a.m. we arrived in San Carlos, and there we met up with the four Vancouver cyclists. Although initially refused transport on the 10:30 boat up the Rio Frio to Los Chiles in Costa Rica (one of only two a day), we teamed up to successfully cajole the lancha operator into taking all six of our bikes and bags on this trip, crowded as it was. Except for the long boat’s motor, the Rio Frio was tranquil and scenic; there were monkeys in the trees, turtles and birds perched on sticks in the river, and even a crocodile near the Los Chiles landing. We parted company with the Canadians at the Costa Rican Immigration post as the four of them cycled away to try their luck at camping for their first night in Costa Rica; we went to look for a room to rest up after our overnight boat ride. All of us Panama bound.
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