Nicaragua By Local Bus

Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Saturday, March 3, 2001

Our toothy smiles belied our hidden fears. The over-sized customs official stared intently as we presented our passports. After looking at both us, and our documents, for what seemed like an eternity, he said "That will be five dollars, please". We quickly paid, and he stamped our passports.

Our Airbus had touched down at Cesar Augusto Sandino International Airport just outside the capital city of Managua, Nicaragua, on route to Costa Rica. Our boarding passes clearly stated Toronto to Liberia, Costa Rica. When the airplane doors opened, we watched closely as about 25 to 30 people made ready to disembark for a stay at the pacific resort of Montelimar.
Ellen looked at me and said "Are you sure?"
I said, "let's go". We grabbed our only luggage, which was carry on, and made our way past the smiling flight attendants.

Would we be asked to present our tickets? I'd read in one of our many guidebooks that often times when entering countries in Central America you must show that you have a forwarding or return ticket. Hell, we didn't even have one that showed we had any business being in Nicaragua. Our plan, if caught, was to say that we were stupid and had gotten off the plane in error, then play our cards as they fell. We thought this story would be simpler than trying to explain the actual truth - we were not allowed to buy air only tickets to Nicaragua. Our gamble had paid off. We proudly marched through the airport terminal towards the unknown.

We hailed a taxi and headed south to the colonial city of Granada. On our way, we stopped at the town of Masaya and its nearby volcano.

Masaya is known throughout the region for its arts and crafts market. There were wooden carvings, an abundance of leather goods, aged rum and fine cigars. Wonderfully coloured primitivista paintings, a movement that originated in Nicaragua in the 1970's, adorned many stalls. We wondered why stuffed crocodile, snake and iguana were so plentiful, when almost no country allows import.

Masaya volcano is unlike a typical cone shaped volcano where you stand at the bottom and look up at the crater. At Masaya Volcano you can actually go right to the top of the crater and look down into its belly. Here we were standing on the very spot where legend has it that Indians once offered young women to the fire goddess Chaciutique. The same spot the Spanish shied away from believing it to be the entrance to Hell.

The gases old Masaya was expelling on this day prevented us from staying any more than a couple of minutes. Aside from the park ranger, we were the only people there. Three weeks later, Masaya experienced a steam driven, phreatic eruption, which is when magma comes close to the surface of a volcano but does not actually erupt. The volcano blasted out hot rocks and bits of crater floor a distance of 500 meters.

Granada, Nicaragua's oldest Spanish city, was founded in 1524 by the conquistadors. It was burned almost to the ground by the retreating British despot, William Walker, who ruled over Nicaragua in the 1850's. Rebuilt, it sits on the now peaceful shores of Lake Nicaragua.

We settled at the centrally located Hotel Don Alfredo. Inside the gates, lay a neat little under nourished courtyard with hammocks and lounge chairs throughout. Our grandiose room had 3 queen-size beds and a fifteen-foot ceiling. The "Don" or Alfredo, was actually a German national who had just moved up from Costa Rica.

No matter where you travel in Central America you do not have to wait for the sun to wake you up in the morning. About 30 minutes before sunrise, the roosters start crowing, then the dogs start barking. Finally, the people hit the streets. No sleeping in in Central America. After a breakfast of beans, rice and eggs accompanied by high-octane coffee we hit the streets.

Our horse drawn buggy took us to every nook and cranny in this beautiful, but weathered old city. A horse drawn hearse waited calmly in front of a church for the requiem mass to end.

For those who think Christianity is on the decline, rest assured that the people of Nicaragua are holding the torch. There are many beautiful old churches, with lots and lots of parishioners.

Mombacho Volcano is just outside Granada. At the base of the volcano we met Liam, a young traveller from Ireland. Liam was from Dublin and had lived just a couple of blocks from us in Toronto until three months past. While in Guatemala he had taken an intensive Spanish language course. After five weeks, he considered himself able to communicate at a more than basic level.

Spanish language courses in Central America definitely have their appeal. The daily routine is one-on-one classes in the morning. You're taken on local excursions in the afternoon. After school you live and share food with a local family, all for about $140 U.S. per week.

We spent a couple of hours hiking Mombacho. It is considerably more beautiful and less volatile than its cousin, Masaya. On our 2-km descent down to the forks of the road at the base of the volcano, we bid our new friend farewell. He travelled to the north, we to the south. As we stood by the side of the road waiting for anything that resembled a bus, we watched our Irish friend vanish in the distance.

Out of nowhere came our bus. All you have to do is stand by the side of the road and they'll stop. Our destination, the tiny port of San Jorge where you catch the ferry to Ometepe Island. This was our first trip on the Nicaraguan public transit system. A three-hour ride along the shores of Lake Nicaragua was worth every penny of the 55-cent fare.

The buses (old school buses from the USA and Canada) have conductors who collect fares, stow and remove roof luggage. Almost all of the luggage work is done while the bus is in motion. Even as the driver struggles with hairpin turns, the conductor merrily goes about his roof top chores. He moves from coach to roof via a back door exit and ladder to the top. If you're getting on or off without luggage, the driver doesn't even bother to come to a full stop. Passenger agility is a necessity. He did actually stop to pick Ellen and I up. He could probably tell we weren't locals.

We arrived at the ferry docks of San Jorge a little shaken but fully satisfied with our bus adventure. When I pointed out our boat to Ellen, she said "Oh no - let's wait for the next one".
When I showed her the next one she said, simply "Oh God!" The ferryboats to Ometepe Island leave much to be desired. Some of the thoughts that came to mind were "its too old", "the engine keeps conking out", "how does it float?" I sneaked a generous belt of rum and convinced Ellen that all would be fine.

Lake Nicaragua, home to the only fresh water shark, or so the story goes, is the 11th largest fresh water lake in the world. A gut wrenching hour-plus voyage brought us to the shores of Ometepe. The island consists of two volcanoes - Concepcion and Madera. An eruption brought them together forming an Isthmus several centuries ago.

Ometepe is home to petroglyphs and pre-Columbian artifacts. If you're into climbing hills and mountains, Ometepe is a hiker's paradise. We had absolutely no intention of walking up these monolithic volcanoes. The next morning, we caught the 5:30 a.m. ferry. Back on dry land it was a three-bus trip to our next destination, the pacific seaport/fishing village of San Juan del Sur.

During one of our bus transfers, we had an hour wait at the bus station in the town of Rivas. Ellen, with her very broken Spanish, set about trying to find directions.
After 20 minutes and absolutely no success I begged a try. Using body language and the name of our destination, I went to work. I would simply stop someone, point in any given direction and say "autobus, San Juan del Sur, por favor?" The person might nod up and down, or if I was wrong, point in a different direction. All you have to do is walk about fifty paces in the assigned direction and repeat the process. After about 4 or 5 "autobus, San Juan del Sur?" queries, we were exactly where we needed to be. It's like following a trail......sort of.

As we waited for our bus, we witnessed a frenzy of commerce. Hawkers were selling clothing, chicklets, toothbrushes, you name it. One thing that repeatedly caught my eye was people selling little frozen bags of coloured water. They were kind of like snow cones with a straw. Although tempting, the fear of having diarrhea while on a lengthy bus trip steered me clear.

Sleepy little San Juan del Sur is one of only a few Nicaraguan fishing villages with a beach. At last, pacific breezes and rolling surf. Dolphins frolicking on the horizon. At the village crossroads we went into the seaside Hotel Estrella and asked to see a room. I liked it. Ellen said "no, no, no" as she stormed out of the room, pointing at rodent droppings in a corner beside the bed. Our search continued.

We finally settled on a little room, behind a grocery store, right in the centre of the local action. Morning brought another day of busy commerce. Not much to sell, but no shortage of buyers. Men on horseback dodged early morning shoppers and local buses. At the north end of the beach, we walked by the gated mansions of the wealthy. In the evening, skinny dogs foraged both beach and streets for scraps of food as horses and cows wandered past our storefront porch.

Nicaragua wasn't even close to what we expected. Having Canadian flags stitched to our backpacks brought smiles of recognition. Former Montreal Expos pitcher, Dennis Martinez, is Nicaragua's national sports hero. Baseball is big in Nicaragua. Everywhere you see kids playing with makeshift equipment - any type of sphere is used as a ball and anything from pipes to whittled tree branches as a bat.

We saw no monkeys and no iguana. All you have to do is cross the border into Costa Rica and both animals are plentiful. We spoke with a Canadian business owner in San Juan del Sur. One day while he was driving home he came upon a sick horse by the side of the road. He shot the horse. A couple of hours later he drove by the same spot. The horse had been carved to the bone.

Almost all of the guidebooks we read warned of thieves and pickpockets. We were warned that when travelling by bus you could expect at least one attempt of thieving per trip. We saw none of that. What we did see was a country of, for the most part, wonderfully friendly people. Proud people, but horribly impoverished. Trying to eke out a living as best they can. We will return, next time with humanitarian intent.
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