I was just starting to think that nowhere would capture my heart in quite the way that Belize did...and then I discovered Nicaragua.
Don't get me wrong, the three months I spent in Costa Rica was fun. I met some lovely people, saw some beautiful places and left with some wonderful memories, but the country itself lacked something that almost everywhere else in Central America seemed to have. It was missing the warmth, the vibrancy and the sense of community so typical elsewhere. I mean that of course as a generalisation, there were small villages and communities there that I was blessed to have spent time in, but on the whole I got the feeling that those aforementioned qualities were long gone, chased out by the high numbers of ex-pats opening up shop and the pursuit of the tourist trade.
Nicaragua on the other hand couldn't have been more different, and I must admit I had pretty high expectations. I can't recall speaking to a single person who has been to Nicaragua who didn't love it there as much as I did. 'It's what Costa Rica was fifteen years ago' was something I heard time and again. And long may it stay this way. I hope this beautiful country never goes the way of Costa Rica. Crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua was like breath of fresh air. Suddenly I was back in Central America again, it was alive and vibrant and it felt so good.
My first stop in Nicaragua was Isla de Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua formed by two volcanoes - Concepcion and Maderas. It was a beautiful place, but very quiet off season and having heard so many positive reports from people who had been there, to be honest I was a little disappointed. Maybe my expectations were too high and I'm ever mindful that impressions of a place are so largely based on the people you interact with there (virtually nobody in this case as everywhere seemed to be empty and dead), but after staying a few nights I decided to move on and headed for the parties and craziness of San Juan del Sur. It wasn't actually my intention to go there, had it not been for one of my travelling buddies leaving their kindle behind in Ometepe and me agreeing to catch up with them to return it. As it turns out San Juan was a much nicer place than I had anticipated. A surf town and much smaller and less crazy than I had first thought, it turned out to be a nice chilled out place to while away a few days.
However, all that changes on a Sunday with the happening of the rather dubiously named 'Sunday Funday', an event dreamt up by a couple of the local party hostels to extract as much money as possible from their guests while making sure everyone participating gets as drunk as they can, tours swimming pools and trashes everything in sight. Maybe I'm just getting old and more respectful with age, but on speaking to local people in San Juan it's clear they're not at all happy about the growth of this event or the effect it has had on San Juan and the thought of being involved in something that goes so against the local culture and upsets local residents isn't something that sits right with me. I'm all up for people having fun and enjoying themselves and I’m no stranger to drunken nights out where I don’t recall how I made it home, but not when it involves riding roughshod over the locals and disrespecting them in the way this event seems to. In addition I don't recall many amazing nights out that I've had that began with me paying $20 to join a glorified pub crawl and being instructed to get very drunk and told I will have a good time. Nevertheless many people do it, 350 the weekend prior to my arrival I was told. One local resort owner I spoke to in a bar told me that he made $3,000 profit from it every Sunday and that this more than made up for the damage caused. Not having any real desire to witness the drunken debauchery, I hopped in a taxi (thank you Emilie!) and grabbed a ride to Granada on Sunday morning.
Granada was an interesting place. A beautifully kept colonial city, it reminded me a lot of Trinidad in Cuba. However, it lacked something, it was sleepy and I didn't connect with the place. The hostel I stayed in on my first night there was empty, I had 14 beds all to myself, save for a few American Lutheran Christians, who I think were there doing missionary work and were staying in private rooms, who kindly invited me out to dinner with them that night. The following day I moved to a more lively place...well, there were other people there at least. This place had a pool, a small bar and rabbits! In fact Nicaragua seems to have a thing about rabbits, they popped up everywhere. In hostels as pets on more than one occasion, being carried on buses, you name it they were there. I think my most memorable rabbit encounter was with a guy trying to sell me cigarettes from a basket balanced on his head while stroking his pet rabbit as I sat and tried to eat the Vigoron (google it) I had so stupidly decided to try in the main square one lunchtime. In the hostel I met another English guy travelling on his own so we spent a couple of days hanging out, went on a boat trip to the Isletas and cycled up to Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake about 8km from the city. It really was a stunningly beautiful place, warm water, sheltered around the edges, a perfect paradise location and we we're pretty much the only people there bar a couple of locals who came to bathe their horses nearby.
When we got back to our rented bikes though, which we'd dutifully chained to a fairly secure fence, we discovered that we hadn't been as alone as we first thought because each bike was missing a wheel and the seat, the only parts not protected by the lock. Our much anticipated freewheel all the way back down the volcano destroyed, we started the long walk home, half carrying, half wheeling what was left of our bikes. Walking through the villages on the way back made it all worthwhile though. Deserted on our way there, these places were now full of locals sitting around enjoying the cool of the evening and we were well received, the adults for the most part clearly annoyed and embarrassed that we'd been put in this situation, kids pointing and laughing but meaning no harm. One young lad even stopped by on his horse and offered to go and get horses for us so we could ride back. Only one person, a sulky teenage lad, eyed us suspiciously from his seat high up on a wall as we passed him. I suspect he was the culprit. On arriving back at the bike rental the guys there were very reasonable, lots of apologetic smiles and phone calls to various people to try and find replacement wheels and we eventually left $90 lighter. We'd had a great day though and nothing was going to spoil that.
After a few days in Granada I had planned to move to Leon, but realising I had more time that I first thought, I decided to head north to Esteli with a couple of Aussie guys I'd met who also found themselves with time to kill. This was probably the best spur of the moment decision I made in Nicaragua as Esteli was by far my favourite city there. As soon as I arrived there the positive 'can do' energy of the place was obvious. There is a strong, creative grass roots movement in the city and the hostel I stayed in, Hostal Luna, was run as a not-for-profit. It was also connected to a not-for-profit cafe and the 'Treehuggers' free tourist information office. Not really knowing much about the place we decided to support this local initiative and go on a couple of their tours, one of the hundreds of colourful murals that have been created all over the city since the revolution and another of a local cigar factory. Given that the tobacco industry in Esteli employs 80% of the town’s residents it seemed only right to find out more about it and I have to say it was far more interesting than I had imagined.
The highlight of my time in Esteli though had to be a visit to the Tisey National Park to meet Don Alberto. Following a dream he had at the age of 9, he carved his first rock in 1977 and for the last 47 years Don Alberto has been carving pictures into the rock faces all over his land. He spends around three hours a day with the most basic of hand tools carving everything from elephants to reptiles, Samsun showing his strength, lions, rum, helicopters and jaguars. Rather bizarrely, even the twin towers make an appearance. For the last 8 years he hasn't even left his property, but welcomes visitors with open arms, explaining animatedly his carvings, interspersing his ramblings with ad lib poetry...all in Spanish of course that even our local guide had trouble translating at times. He did however manage to tell us that he is finally teaching himself to read and write and proudly showed us his visitor book where he had neatly written his name over and over along the top of a page.
After a short diversion to Matagalpa for just one night, my last stop in Nicaragua was Leon, a city that I'd repeatedly heard from people was 'nicer than Granada' but I don't know, the jury's still out on that one. Granada is definitely more beautiful, Leon perhaps more genuine. I liked both places, each had its merits for different reasons. Leon certainly had some interesting characters, not least of all in the hostel I stayed at. Unfortunately Leon will also stick in my memory as one of the only places I lost anything on my travels. In my case it was only the loose change out of the pocket of my shorts one night while they laid on the end of my bed, but for another guy it was $500 from his bag and another girl had her iPhone snatched. I'd spoken to someone a few days earlier who had had her camera stolen from her bag at another hostel in town so it seems Leon has a bit of a problem in that respect.
Nevertheless, Leon was interesting enough. I spent a few days there, the highlight was climbing Volcan Telica by moonlight with the local not-for-profit Quetzaltrekkers. Run by volunteer guides with all proceeds going to benefit local kids, every month they organise a hike to climb Telica by the light of the full moon, arriving at the crater around 3.30am and then watching the sunrise before the hike back down. This seems to me to have several advantages, not least avoiding the punishing daytime temperatures and relentless sun. I've spoken to so many people who have climbed various volcanoes in this part of the world and all complain about how difficult the heat and exposure is, in many cases for very little payoff at the top, usually arriving just as the clouds descend. Why anyone would want to do such a hike is beyond me. This hike, however, was pretty amazing. I can't think of too many active volcanoes that you can walk right to the edge of the crater on and look down into the lava with no safety barriers and H&S rules. It's hard to describe the feeling you get when you stand there looking down into the abyss, the sulphur burning your eyes and nose and feeling the ground underneath you rumble, but I can highly recommend it if ever you get a chance to do anything similar and it provided a perfect end to my time in this beautiful country.
As much as I was sad to leave Nicaragua, I was excited to be heading back to Belize too. In order to spend as much time as possible in Nicaragua, sadly I'd left myself no time for Honduras or El Salvador on my journey north and instead took the Tica bus (for the first time), rather than chicken buses, north to San Pedro Sula in Honduras.
With its dubious title of 'most dangerous city in the world' due to it having the highest murder rate, I must admit I did feel a little nervous about going there. It was all unfounded of course, as most travel advisories are, in fact my overall impression of Honduras from my long bus ride through it was that it's a beautiful country, lush and green and very undeveloped. I actually spent only one night in San Pedro Sula, but it is well worth a mention. I was lucky enough to pick The Guaras hostel as my place to stay and I couldn't have chosen a better place. Rocky, the guy who owns the hostel came to meet me from the bus, happily offering to stop in at a supermarket on the way home (and being extremely patient while the people with me debated endlessly their dinner options!) to enable us to use the ATM and buy groceries for dinner to save us having to go out again later in the evening. In the evening he made sure we all knew exactly how we were going to get to our next destinations complete with times that we’d need to be ready for him to drop us off at our respective buses the following morning. Rocky was one of those guys you instantly like, nothing was too much trouble for him and talking to him later he explained to me how he’d built up the hostel and his transport business from scratch and the numerous pitfalls he’d encountered along the way. He also explained the stark realities for Hondurans when it comes to work opportunities. The guy was a true fighter, salt of the earth and I was sad that I’d not left a few days in my schedule to spend a few days with him and some of the surrounding area. Looking at it as ‘glass half full’ though, it gives me a good reason to return both to there and to El Salvador at some point in the future.
And so the following morning I found myself on one of the craziest local buses I’d encountered thus far heading for the rather charmless town of Puerto Cortes to catch the weekly boat to Mango Creek in Belize. Following a fun game of cat and mouse with the Honduran immigration guy…he wanted $5 exit fee, I didn’t want to give it to him…and a catch-up with my Venezuelan friend from the Tica bus the day before, I was finally on my way back to Belize. It was with some trepidation for several reasons, not least of all because I know how often revisiting much loved places ends in a crushing anti-climax. Apprehensions were soon forgotten once the boat left port though, my mind suddenly fully focused on how the hell I was going to survive the next couple of hours without losing my breakfast over the side. Not one usually to suffer from seasickness, this ride was clearly an exception, the sea horribly rough and focusing on the horizon not even a possibility because of the swell. I’m still not sure even now how I made it, but it’s not a journey I want to do again in a hurry.
Upon landing at Mango Creek however, I knew instantly that my fear was unfounded. I felt the country’s charm envelope me immediately, right from the dry humour of the immigration guy who boarded the boat to stamp my passport, to the ride north to Dangriga in a taxi van than can only be fittingly described as long past ready for the scrapyard, to the friendly welcomes and interest from the locals. Belize wasn’t going to disappoint a second time round, I could feel it.