Nicaragua: Part One
Back in March of this year, anti-government protests broke out across Nicaragua. The demonstrations were organized in opposition to the current president, Daniel Ortega, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds, most at the hands of government retaliation. This is a situation that normally would have caught our attention, however, even amidst everything we had going on in our lives in April, the events occupied an even greater portion of our minds. Since, Nicaragua lies right in the middle of our planned path, at the very least, we would need to come up with a plan to get around the country, which at the moment seemed destined for civil war.
In the months leading up to our flight out of Philly, every article that mentioned Nicaragua in the headline, received a click. As we made our way closer and closer to the country itself, we encountered a few travelers who had been crossing Central America in the opposite direction of us and had made stops in Nicaragua. At the same time, the violence had subsided, even if tons of people labeled as political opponents of the president were being accused of terrorism and jailed. Given the fact that the worst thing we had heard was that ‘Granada had become a bit of a ghost town,’ we decided that, barring a change in the situation, we would make a stop in Nicaragua.
The night prior to our travel to Nicaragua, we were a bit nervous, not because of anything going on in the country, rather because of what was going on in Felicia’s GI system. Thankfully, that morning and throughout our nearly twelve-hour journey, her illness agreed to take a break. Our shuttle ($120 total) was supposed to pick us up at D&D Brewery around 1:30PM and drop us off in León ten hours later. We didn’t expect it to show up at 1:30. This is Central America. We also didn’t expect to be pulling away from the brewery after 3:00, but that’s what happened.
Already nearly two hours behind schedule, you can imagine how everyone felt as we hung out in the parking lot of the border office for two hours, waiting to be stamped into Nicaragua.
Sometime around midnight, we all received our passports back and were on our way to León. Meanwhile, at our Airbnb ($141.13 for five nights), the caretaker of the property was patiently awaiting our arrival. Two hours later we were finally there. The caretaker, Angel, an elderly man who was the perfect embodiment of his name, greeted us with a warm smile and a beer. We already loved this place and this man.
The next morning, Angel put together a traditional Nicaraguan breakfast of gallo pinto (rice & beans), cheese, tortillas, fruit, and fresh orange juice for us. That day, Felicia’s insides also decided that a 24-hour break was enough and forced us to do little wandering our first day in León. The majority of the day was spent researching translations for all of the symptoms and locating the closest medical center to visit the next day. We were convinced Felicia had brought along a souvenir from Honduras.
We awoke our second morning in León expecting to make a visit to the nearest doctor. Luckily, the symptoms seemed to subside, and as the day went on, it was apparent that we could take our travel insurance off of speed dial for the moment.
With Felicia feeling much better, we were finally able to venture out into the city. We spent that afternoon walking around the downtown area, even climbing the stairs to the roof of the cathedral for some great views of León ($6 total to visit the roof). The lack of tourists was quickly apparent. As we talked to locals, we had found out that many of the hotels and hostels had only reopened a month or two prior. Travelers were just beginning to trickle into the country again.
That afternoon, we also visited the Museum of the Revolution ($6.33 museum entrance for two). Despite Andy’s interest in history, we’re usually not big on visiting museums. This was a unique experience though. This isn’t a museum as you would picture one in the States. The entire place was two rooms filled with newspaper clippings and photographs from the last 80 years of Nicaraguan history, with an obvious emphasis on the revolution and civil war of the 70s and 80s. Our guide for the afternoon was a man who fought in the revolution himself. Just decades prior, he was in León as the city was bombed by their own leader, and he took part in the fighting on behalf of the revolutionary forces, the Sandinistas. We initially found it a bit odd that many of the pictures were simply leaning against the walls. However, during our conversation with our guide, we found out that the museum had been taken over during the violence that had occurred earlier in the year. It was a surreal experience to be standing in a building that, just months prior, was the site of active rebellion.
Of course, when the topic of the current political climate came up, the guide toed the party line. Whether he actually believed what he was saying is up for debate, but what else can you do when the president was a Sandinista rebel himself and current dissidents are being thrown in prison. There were many times during our visit to the museum that we were left speechless. This man had watched his city be destroyed, took part in a rebellion to overthrow a dictator, fought in a civil war against U.S.-funded counterrevolutionaries, and now must stand, willingly or unwillingly, and defend the actions of a president who was a one-time revolutionary, but now resembles the tyranny that was overthrown decades ago. He also made sure to note that, despite the U.S.’s interference in the politics of the country, there are absolutely no hard feelings between the Nicaraguan people and everyday Americans.
Our last full day in León was one of the most memorable of the previous three months. When we got out of bed that morning, Felicia’s stomach was once again not feeling well. This time it wasn’t because of an illness, but rather nerves. That day we were headed about an hour outside of the city to Cerro Negro Volcano. We weren’t going just to hike or take in the view from the bottom. We were going volcano boarding ($60.76 for two). For the weeks leading up to our arrival in León, Felicia had insisted that she would just watch from the bottom. When we had gone to arrange for our trip to Cerro Negro the previous day, Andy didn’t allow any time for her to consider watching from afar before reserving a spot for two and handing over the money.
When we arrived at the volcano ($10.13 entrance for volcano--for two), it was a sixty minute hike to the top. From below, we watched a group making the trip down the mountain. The fear in Felicia’s eyes could not be hidden. With our wooden boards tucked under our arms, we made our way up the active volcano, which our guide warned us is expected to erupt every twenty years and hasn’t done so in the last nineteen. When we finally reached the top, Felicia was nearly sent right back down to the bottom when the strong gusts attempted to take her and her board for an early ride down the side of the volcano. After braving the winds on the ridge of the volcano, we were able to set our boards down and enjoy the amazing views. At one point, near the crater, the surface rocks could be kicked aside and heat could be felt emanating from the ground.
Before heading down the volcano, our group (us and 3 others—usually groups are 20-30, which is the perfect example of the effects of the political situation on tourism at the moment) was informed of a series of punishments and prizes for the fastest and slowest riders of the day. The fastest male and female would each receive a discount card for use at a local clothing shop. The slowest male and female would each receive an ice water bath and be challenged to complete the Lava Shot Challenge back at Bigfoot Hostel (we’ll come back to that). Though there was a “walking path” back down for any last minute quitters, Felicia didn’t even consider that an option, though she was fully prepared for an ice bath at the bottom. We all geared up in our orange jumpsuits and goggles. Apparently the jumpsuits only come in large…
After receiving instructions on how to best avoid breaking a limb, it was time to go. From this vantage point, the volcano’s slope appeared to be nearly vertical. One at a time, the members of our group made the less than one minute trip down. Felicia went before Andy, and there he sat awaiting the signal that she had reached the bottom, and the path was clear. “Why was she taking so long? She should be at the bottom by now. She still isn’t there? Is she rolling down the mountain? Did she break a bone? How many bones did she break? You idiot, she can’t walk down the street without tripping, and you convinced her to do this? How would you explain to her parents..”
The entire trip down the side of the volcano takes less than a minute. It’s tough to take it all in as you’re flying down, and gravel is flying up into your face, but it’s a rush. Felicia did fall off her board, nothing major, just a missing wedding band (exactly the reason why she recently bought a silicone ring—insert spammy, affiliate link). Andy started off with quite a bit of speed and completely lost the trail, picking up some extra loose gravel in the process.
After removing the rocks from our shoes and trying to pick some out of our hair, our times were announced. “The slowest male and female of the day at 29 kph and 30 kph, Andrew and Felicia.” It’s not important who had the higher of the two…
The ice bath actually seemed like a prize after the walk through the sweltering heat and punishing gaze of the sun. The true punishment awaited. Back at Bigfoot Hostel, the operators of our tour, we were faced with the Lava Shot Challenge. From amongst the shadows behind the bar, a bottle of Flor de Caña rum was revealed. Normally, this is a sight that brings joy and good times, however this bottle was packed full of a variety of fiery chilies and, upon nasal inspection, it could not be determined if there was actually any rum in there.
The Lava Shot Challenge goes like this: One shot of the hellish mixture. Wait 5 seconds. Another shot. Another 5 seconds. Double shot. Wait 30 seconds. No eating, drinking, puking, or trips to the bathroom.
For Felicia, it was not even a possibility. One sip of rum, and she’s not legally allowed to operate a motor vehicle. 2 single shots and a double, and we would only need one plane ticket out of Panama City. For Andy, redemption was on his mind. No one would remember his slow(er than Felicia) time if he completed the challenge. Plus, who says no to free rum, even if it smells more like something you put on wings than in a glass with a few ice cubes.
If we weren’t already operating at peak levels of douchebaggery, the bartender made sure to put on “Thunderstruck,” before pouring out the shots and giving the countdown.
I’m trying to think of a way to describe this in unnecessary detail, but it just can’t be done. It was an extremely underwhelming experience. I was expecting to shed a tear, maybe gag a bit, at the very least break a sweat. After all, the Mexican guy who did it the day before puked! Nothing. The bartender even double checked to make sure he poured the right stuff. He took a little sip and instantly responded, “oh yeah, that’s it.” Gotta find space in our bags for this sick Lava Shot tank bro…
That night we were planning on checking out the national sport of Nicaragua, a game with complex rules and a rich history, which is only popular in a few countries...baseball. After some food and beers at Bigfoot, we, along with friends from our volcano boarding trip, our guide, and his brother, crammed into a taxi and headed to the stadium. Our guide likely just came along to see if Andy would be able to keep the lava shots down the rest of the night.
This night the Leones de León were taking on the Indios del Boer of Granada ($5.06 for two tickets), a classic matchup in the 4-team Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League. Put this one up there with Yankees/Red Sox, Eagles/Cowboys, Oilers/Flames. The game was just like a game back in the States, just a lower budget version. The park looked like an inner city high school ballpark, you know, aside from the multiple giant pictures of President Ortega waving and smiling at you from the outfield.
From the band behind home plate and the roughly-clad, dancing mascots to the game itself, it was a blast. We cheered the home team along to a big 6-1 win and had a truly unforgettable time in the process. We were bummed that we had missed the Mexican league finals when we were in Oaxaca a couple months prior, but this definitely made up for it. Between the baseball game and volcano boarding, this was one of the most memorable days of the entire three months.
Only months before we had arrived in Nicaragua, we weren’t sure we would be able to visit. Now, we were adding additional stops and days to our time in the country and adding it to our “must-return list.” Our time in Nicaragua was only just beginning, but was already going faster than we had hoped.