Everything changed when we crossed the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. For one, Nicaraguans are adept at squeezing as many people into each vehicle, be it a bicycle, motorbike, car or truck. A bus drove past us, a group of people on the roof and a man hanging on to the back. A pickup truck was full of people, many of them with half their body outside the vehicle. I began noticing people carrying buckets and boxes carefully balanced on their heads, and everyone seemed to be carrying piles of wood, for their wood cooking stoves. The buses are old American school buses, many sporting Christian quotes on the front and back and most still painted in the telltale yellow colour.
We cycled along Lake Nicaragua, which is so large that it looks like the ocean, especially since the strong wind was driving large waves that crashed to the shore. Huge wind turbines seemed out of place, rotating furiously while families live in shacks down the road. At the market in Rivas we got another taste of Nicaragua, a shifting, colourful and noisy reality. Roving salesmen walked by, one covered with colorful bits of string, and another with a radio around his neck and a rack of sunglasses in his hand – many Nicaraguans are poor but enterprising.
We caught the ferry from Rivas to Moyogalpa on Isla Ometepe, all the while enjoying perfectly clear views of the two volcanoes that form the island. This was a rare treat since they are usually covered by clouds. A truck on the ferry rolled back and forth with the waves, threatening to crash into our bikes. The driver said that he will drive back to El Salvador in 24 hours straight with a truck full of bananas, so I made a mental note to watch out for sleepy truck drivers while out riding.
The streets of Ometepe, and indeed most of Nicaragua, are covered by red and black propaganda painted on poles, rocks and houses, in support of the FSLN party, which is currently in power. That is the same party that headed the 1979 revolution that set Nicaragua free of the Somoza dictatorship. The mural in our hostel, a sandinista guerilla warrior wielding a pepsi cola molotov bottle against a tank, was a grim reminder of the recent and violent history of this country.
The main roads on the island are cobbled stone, laying them must have been a monumental task. The rest of the roads are steep rocky tracks, some of the roughest we have cycled. On a kayaking trip up the Rio Estero, we saw what would become a recurring sight of locals washing their clothes in the lake using large stone washboards while soaping themselves up as well. Swimming in the pure waters of Ojo de Agua was relaxing and supposedly healing. Our visit ended with a dark and scary night ride to the ferry terminal in Altagracia, to catch the midnight ferry.
In Granada we took a “vacation from our vacation” – we stayed with my aunt Peta and her partner Ben for almost two weeks. They have a company for low cost Bamboo housing (CO2BAMBU) and live in a wonderful colonial style house with a pool and garden in its center. Their house is full of cats and dogs, most of which came from the street, such as Princesa and Scar-face (who lives outside). Mango and Dwayne traveled all the way from icy Chicago, but Mango is usually the star of the evening walks, when locals yell “oso” (bear) or “me regalas” (give him to me). Many random visitors show up as well, such as Monika, who saved a baby monkey (Who is Lolo), and Rasa and Kris who adopted the painfully skinny and cut up dog Olive.
We filled up our time in Granada with Spanish lessons, trips to the market, baking bread and pizza, yoga, a chocolate workshop, and of course Maya baked some delicious desserts such as rogalach (“jewish croissant”), passion fruit cake and mango squares. We also visited many of the tourist spots such as swimming at Laguna Apoyo, a clear watered crater lake, and peering into the steaming Masaya Volcano. My cousin Oren also lives in Granada, in a model bamboo studio, and every day we dropped by his place to pick up the 30-40 new mangos that had fallen during the night.
Leaving the somewhat prosperous colonial city of Granada for the extremely poor rural countryside was a bit of a shock. Perhaps not as much for us as for the locals that stared at us in astonishment as we cruised past. Actually, in the beginning we were fighting a strong headwind, so we weren’t going very fast. Everyone was very friendly and helpful: Karina let us stay in an empty house on their farm and Ada fed us a delicious meal with a side of soft white cheese (cuajada) that she had just squeezed in her bare hands. Francisco, her husband, is a scarred war veteran and they are both proud of the time they served in the army. To cool down we often bought “ice cream”, which was most often a small plastic bag of half-frozen juice ($0.08).
In Boaco, a colourful town that is spread out on a hillside, the scenery changed from hot and desert-like to cooler and greener hills. We stopped at a simple shack, painted green on the front, to the sound of cheerful singing – a church service in an unlikely and unsigned location. In Muy Muy we stumbled upon a lively baseball game where just about each player had a different uniform – when you don’t have much, you use what you have.
Near Matagalpa we sampled the
excellent El Castillo chocolate, and then cruised past colourful vegetable stands on the sublime descent to Jinotega. A group of schoolchildren pushed us up a hill, a much appreciated gesture for us and a fun game for them. Our entry to Esteli took us past the usual string of “love hotels”, and on to the weekly organic fair where we drank excellent homemade yoghurt with pineapple slices.
Dairy products certainly made a comeback in Nicaragua. For example a common snack was a rolled up hot tortilla with melted stringy cheese inside (quesillo), served with cream and onions. Another new dish that disappeared way too fast was a flat bread made from coarse corn flour milled on the spot and served with cream and fresh cheese (güirilas). We also enjoyed a thick chocolate drink made with freshly ground cocoa (pinolillo) and chocolate milk (cacao con leche). The thickest and frothiest one by far was served in the place where you least expect it, from a small shack by the side of the road by a proud Nica mother. Then there were the seven types of mangos which we enjoyed daily: chino, indio, rosa, tomi, papaya, manzana and mechuga.
Our final stop in Nicaragua, the Somoto Canyon, was a floating and stumbling hike through a lush canyon that resembled Utah or Jordan. The kids that rent out tubes entertain themselves by jumping from 20m and more. The final climb to the surprisingly relaxed border post was hot and sweaty, and demanded multiple water dunkings to get up. Nicaragua, we had an excellent time, hope to see you sometime in the future!