November 7th, 2015:
Continuing the race to meet friends in Southwestern Nicaragua from Northeastern Honduras, I had less than a week to get there. Awakening early in the small mountain town of Teupasenti, Honduras, and tired from some hard days of riding but I felt excited to explore a new Central American country. I pushed out early expecting a continuation of the intense tropical heat of Honduras.
A few hours of pavement and I reached the border! 6th international border crossing by bike on this journey. It’s funny how sensitivity changes with exposure. Crossing into Mexico was a huge deal at the time. I was nervous, excited, scared about my safety due to endless heresay from the news and social media. But now, crossing between two “even more dangerous” countries, I felt quite relaxed. If anything it’s just the hassle of waiting on lines to get all “i’s and t’s” in order. But there is still a sense of excitement — to explore a new culture, new topography and nature. Plus I had the added benefit of knowing I’d be seeing two different groups of old friends in the coming weeks!
One thing was very clear right off the bat: Nicaragua has invested some serious money in it’s highways. Very smooth, very well maintained pavement. Well, correction: the US has invested some serious money in Nicaragua’s highways. This country has had a very challenging past, and many of its citizens continue to suffer greatly because of it. Very curious to dig in to the history while I’m here…
Spent my first night in the sweet little town/city of Ocotal. Lots of commerce here, supplying many of the small nearby villages, and a super cheap hotel room. I’m realizing the benefit to a cheap hotel on the first night in a new country. Get oriented with new money, new customs, etc.
Remember when I said I was rushing to meet my friends in the Southwest? Well… It’s just too hard for me to pass up amazing opportunities to explore nature, even if I’m a bit hurried. I read a bit about Somoto Canyon from a friend’s blog: high rock cliffs and a gentle river flowing between them that you can float down? It was only a 60km detour, so progress could still be made toward my friends. Count me in.
On Monetization of Nature:
All over the world, many of nature’s most beautiful features have become privatized and monetized. Whether visiting the Grand Canyon in the USA, (list other places like that), one must often pay entrance fees, guide fees, and camping fees just to see a beautiful thing that was already there before we humans discovered it. Many of these fees are directed back into the location for maintenance. In Central America, it seems that local communities who lived for generations near natural spectacles have learned to capitalize on them in absence of other income possibilities. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere next to Haiti, and so many people are poor. Here in Cañon Somoto, people are VERY poor. The average income for a farm worker is the equivalent of about $6 a day, if there is work to be found. Due to decreased irrigation over time the amount of farm work near the canyon has virtually disappeared, so tourist traffic is what keeps the locals feed (albeit minimally).
When faced with a $15USD fee for a guided tour of the canyon I initially balked and even tried to negotiate a lower price, unaware of the locals’ financial situation. I try to stick to a $20/day budget including room and board, and this would push me above that. I asked if I could just hike the canyon by myself, asserting my outdoor experience. No dice, you must be accompanied by a guide to enter the canyon.
After grudgingly agreeing, I started chatting with my guide, Ramon, on our hike to the canyon entrance. He explicated his overhead costs, how he had to rent the equipment to lead the tour (dry bag, life jackets) and pay the park entrance fee. After all was said and done, he would make about $6 for our 3 hour excursion. I would be his one and only client for the day.
Ramon was 68 years old.
I was at first disappointed that I got “the old guy.” I wanted to hike fast and worried that he would hold me back. Ah… the folly of expectations and agendas, how they cloud opportunities for inner expansion. By grace, I found myself quickly relinquishing my attachment to intensity for the sake of connection. Ramon had worked the coffee fields for most of his life until the farms started to close. With a family to support and little means to do it, so guiding tourists through the canyon next to which he grew up was his only option. Due to his age he is not given the large groups. He gets the odd client once every couple of days. It’s a hard life, sometimes not enough money for just rice and beans. By contrast my miserly misdemeanor was instantly elucidated. How lucky I am to be able to CHOOSE to live simply to stretch what money I have. How hard it must be for him to put on a happy face amidst the reality of his situation.
The canyon was stunning.
Our conversation was put on pause in order to manage the slippery river rocks…
The whole experience of recreational tourism was slapping me in the face as we floated down the gentle river, encountering various other guided groups. I could see Ramon was trying to “do his job well.” But what was supposed to be a fun tourist excursion was a very serious job for him, the difference between survival and, well, not. Oddly, we both continued to play our parts. He played the role of the tour guide showing me a safe but fun time. I played the part of the tourist who was enjoying said safe and fun time. It was… awkward.
We returned to the park entrance, completing our 3 hour loop. I thanked him for his time, for sharing about his life and left him a big tip. A drop in the bucket for his ongoing needs, but it was all I could think of in the moment. I rode away, back onto my route, feeling both lucky and ashamed of my privilege. Should I have not put myself in this situation, playing the role of the wealthy tourist? No, this experience was important. But what is the learning, how would I find a more resolute path in the future? Peace with this issue is not easy to find.
After a night’s slumber in the town of Condega, I set off on a mostly dirt route to escape the Panamerican highway, evidently called La Ruta de Sandino (yes, Sandino of the Sandinistas). This area was of extreme political significance in the historical fight of the Sandinistas, where one of the last military strongholds was in the town of Yali. Honestly however, I just picked the route because it looked like it would be interesting topographically with big volcanic cones abound. I only learned about the political history a week later.
The route was indeed beautiful. While much of the land had been stripped for agriculture, the endless peaks and valleys were marvelous.
First time seeing a sign like this. Makes a lot of sense, right? Tell people that there’s going to be a steep incline coming up in order to shift to a low gear. I indeed followed the suggestion, as the road climbed 1500’ in a matter of moments.
After passing through sweet little mountain towns of San Sebastian Yali, San Rafael del Norte and Jinotega all in the heart of the Zona Cafeteria (coffee zone), I began the final climb over Cerro el Arenal to Matagalpa.
Awesome and Awful.
At times they appear a world apart and at others, surprisingly adjacent:
It was late. I had about an hour of light to climb over 2000’ on a windy mountain road. I had lights but was a bit nervous that I’d made the wrong choice pushing forward past Jinotega. The weather decided to prove me correct. Black clouds rolled in, followed almost immediately by copious cloudburst. I pulled off the road to seek shelter under a bus stop. Okay, it’s getting dark fast, the road is very windy and visibility is about 30 feet due to the rain and dense fog. Time to get the hell off the road. Of course, camping options were out as there was dense jungle lining the road on both sides.
By sheer luck, I encountered a roadside comedor (diner) a couple miles up the hill… I was forced to ask the owner to camp on her property. I offered to purchase a dinner and breakfast while there. She graciously accepted. Setting up the tent between two tables on the cement floor under the aluminum roof, I was lullabied by two barking guard dogs and the clamor of rain on the roof all night, but I was glad to be protected from the rain. The following morning I awoke to a beautiful view down the valley, had a lovely breakfast and conversation with the owner. Upon my request to settle the bill she added a 400 Córdoba charge for camping (for reference a comfortable hotel room a couple nights before ran me $150C). Confused, I asked her why she had not told me she would charge me to camp, as I’ve never in all my travels been charged after the fact for camping on a restaurant floor. In fact, not at all. She proceeded to yell at me, how could I imagine that I could camp on her property without paying??? It got ugly. I had planned to offer her an extra tip on the food in appreciation for the hospitality but now it felt dirty. It would have been easier if we hadn’t gotten along so well just a few moments earlier.
I rolled away from the restaurant, Her insults fading into the hillside behind me. Once the initial wave of anger had faded, I considered how I could have handled the situation better, how the misunderstanding could have been avoided. I thought I’d been completely clear about my terms but obviously not enough. Was I wrong for not at least paying her something for saving my ass from a dangerous situation? Sigh. No clear answers here. One thing’s for sure: I have a strong sensitivity to being taken advantage of, and could stand to soften my initial reactions in situations such as these. The learning never ceases.
Landing in the town center of Matagalpa for a cup of fresh locally grown coffee, I quickly took note of the historical significance of Matagalpa in the plight of the Sandinistas with its grand statue of Carlos Fonseca in the city center.
Coffee and coffee related commerce dominates Matagalpa. In the heart of the ‘zona cafetera’, I was passing through during prime harvesting time. Dozens of signs offering to roast people’s crops, most hardware stores featuring a variety of coffee processing machinery, the smoky smell of fresh roasting coffee filled the streets.
While enjoying my vaso de Jose, I received a message from Ira, an US ex-pat living in Matagalpa for the last few years. I’d gotten access to an ex-pat forum for Nicaragua and had made a post seeking hosts along my route. He offered to show me around town and stay in his house without hesitation! After a quick meet and greet with him and his small pack of rescued dogs, we wandered out of the town center to drop my stuff at his place.
No Drunks Allowed. At least not on this block.
A block away from the sign, we went to his favorite neighborhood haunt for a couple of caguamas (big bottle of beer). A little hole in the wall, surprisingly busy for noon on a weekday. At least surprising to me. I don’t tend to go to bars much in general, much less during the day. It was a lively and welcoming group, however, and the back patio overlooked a sweet, albeit polluted river that flowed through town.
One smile from the bar owner, and I had to capture the moment. It seems that decorative dental work is pretty common around here for those who can afford it. I particularly liked the star. Only about $100USD to get one… Perhaps I’ll wait for a time of dental need…
Ira and I shared some lovely conversation about his history and life here in Nicaragua. Much thanks for your time and open door!
The unexpected sleepover in Matagalpa had again dragged my schedule slightly behind. I decided to push for a big day on the pavement to catch up to my first group of visiting friends from the US: Noah and Kali, who would be waiting for me on Ometepe Island about 170 miles away. If I could make it to camp on Volcan Masaya 85 miles from Matagalpa, I’d have a reasonably gentle following day to Ometepe. An early breakfast with Ira and a quick hug goodbye, I was on a roll…
Beautiful mountains of the zona cafetera.
Quickly passing through the town of Sebaco I joined the Pan-American Highway for a stretch. Not particularly exciting, but I noticed a new shape of under-4-wheeled taxis: motorcycles with the front wheel removed, welded to a 2-wheeled seat-cart. With no front suspension I imaged they were a little rough on the passengers rumps in contrast to the fancy tuktuks that dominate most of Central America. Interesting nonetheless…
More interesting yet are the creative inventions for people with disabilities in Latin America. This man has a hand-cranked rickshaw of sorts, hauling heavy loads around town for cash. He was really excited to have me take a photo of him with his serious gangsta face, adjusting his hat and pose very specifically for the camera.
Peek-a-boo view of Lake Managua to the North.
I arrived at the park entrance to Volcan Masaya around mid-afternoon. There would be cheap, safe campsites on the slope of the volcano and a ridable road all the way to the crater’s mouth!
From a distance, Masaya is not the most impressive volcano. You don’t get the classic huge stratovolcanic cone shape or anything, but continuous clouds of smoke erupting from the nearby crater got me excited to peak in.
WELL worth the ride! Malaya is still an active volcano, and lets visitors drive right up to the rim, despite recent history of the volcano occasionally burping large rocks far enough into the air to destroy the odd vehicle. Luckily nobody has been hit by one… yet.
A short hike up from the parking lot brought me to the highest point of the volcano, looking across into each of its 3 craters. Only one is currently active.
The sun began to set and I considered making myself scarce enough to stealth camp on the crater’s edge, but realized park officials remain up there guarding the area to prevent that very thing from happening. I hesitantly returned to the official campsite amongst the trees by the visitor center.
A fun, rocky dirt descent off the volcano the following morning dropped me on the road to Granada.
By stroke of luck an old college friend’s dad, Tucker, would be up there visiting from San Juan del Sur by the Costa Rican Border and we crossed paths for a quick meal! I’d planned to visit him down South after a few days with Noah and Kali on Ometepe Island.
A smoldering day on hot pavement carried me down the Western coast of Lake Nicaragua to the ferry dock for Ometepe Island. A stunning landmass in the middle of the lake, Ometepe is formed by two giant volcanos — Volcan Concepcion (left) and Volcan Madera (right). I bought my ferry ticket and ate some well-deserved ice cream, excited to see my first US visitors in Central America!
Where I Rode:
Day 1: Teupasenti, Honduras —> Danli, Honduras —> Ocotal, Nicaragua
Day 2: Ocotal —> Cañon Somoto —> Condega
Day 3: Condega —> San Sebastian Yalí —> San Rafael del Norte —> Jinotega —> Santa Ines
Day 4: Santa Ines —> Matagalpa
Day 5: Matagalpa —> Sebaco —> Tipitapa —> Volcan Masaya
Day 6: Volcan Masaya —> Granada —> Rivas —> (ferry) —> Isla Ometepe (Moyogalpa) —> Santa Cruz