Our first conversation in Nicaragua, with an actual Nico, went something like this:
“Hi, where are you from?”, “Portugal – my husband [yeah, me] is from England.”, “You need some help with the border?”, “No, we’re good, thanks, we’ve done many borders…”, “OK, you know, you’re very lucky, you come to Nicaragua and all the Nicos want to help you. But if a Nicaraguan comes to your country, they are treated very badly.”, “That’s not good, have you been to Portugal?”, “I was in America – they treat all the black people like shit. I want to be a terrorist and kill all the white people.”, “Oh….”, “People like you…”
I’d like to do a little post here about Nicaragua – hopefully it might be of some interest to anyone hoping to visit the place on the way through Central America – you know, it might give you a feel for the country – I dunno, it might dispel a few misconceptions and, seen through the prism of a couple of crazy overlanders such as us, might just confirm a few notions that you had about this area. I can’t say that I knew much about the place before we arrived on the border from Honduras, so, at first, we wondered whether the Nicaraguans would really like to kill us – when, in fact, by the time we left for Costa Rica I felt that they had saved my life…
That first conversation had taken place at the border even before anyone had seen our passports. Of course, that was the only “problem” we encountered at the frontier – the officials were all pleasant enough and, other than waiting for the big commercial trucks to move out of the way, we were soon speeding down through the gentle hills towards volcano land. We talked about this wanabe-terrorist; he was just having a laugh with the rich gringos; he must have had some bad experience in America, maybe; he’d been absorbing too much anti-Western news and media – he wasn’t even black – in Dunia’s own country, he would have looked pretty much the same as most of the Portuguese… But it was kind of a strange conversation to have for us – this kind of casual hostility that neither of us had encountered before on our travels. One week later, we had another conversation just like it – hmm, was a pattern developing here? Welcome to Nicaragua.
Until that second conversation, however, we had a smooth and easy time. We headed for the volcanoes, stopping at San Jacinto to see the pools of boiling mud and hang out with some of the children there who wandered around with us in return for being able to inspect the inside of our truck. A few miles on and we came to Leon, where we found a vet to update Vaga’s vaccinations, watched some football at the Bigfoot Traveller’s Hostel, before heading to the beach close by for a couple of days.
One week in, we hadn’t felt the need to resort to any paid parking – the country seemed safe and secure and the only guns we saw were attached to actual police people… One cop did want a tip for doing his job, keeping an eye on his allotted zone in Leon where we had parked the bus. He seemed embarrassed, in the end, when we questioned why – we gave him less than a dollar. Another cop asked us if we could give him one of our bicycles so that he could do his rounds easier. Well, you can park for free but you might have to help subsidize the police force. At the beach we found a large open area to park up, paid $2 for Wi-Fi for a day, and stayed to take a breather from the previous couple of weeks moving around. The biggest problem we had was that the shops hardly ever had any change and the trading of cigarettes, beers and stuff became like a web of IOU’s and promises to pay tomorrow.
If you stay on the Pacific side of Nicaragua, you’ll have no problems moving around the country. Further east, in the jungles laced with rivers that is known as Miskitia, you’ll need a 4×4, a canoe, a helicopter or some combination of all three. But we had come to see the volcanoes which are arranged in a spine running the length of the country on the western side. Looking at the exhibitions at the Masaya National Park I learnt that Central America is not so much where North and South drifted together but it Is a volcanic production, Nicaragua especially, come bubbling up from under the sea to join the two continents. The volcano at Masaya should be especially noted because it’s one of the only active volcanoes that you can drive right up to the crater’s rim and peer down into the groaning, hissing, bubbling, fuming hell below.
Bypassing any possible delights to be had in Managua, we drove onto Granada which is Nicaragua’s beautiful, colonial gem of a town on the shores of the 19th biggest lake in the world. In reality it has none of the genuine charm of Leon. The street kids here are more clued up, speaking very good English but ironically hard to communicate with because you’re never quite sure if the conversation is heading towards a scam of one kind or another. They operate in the shadows of the big, $200 a night, hotel and among the crowds of westerners – many of which actually live here, gentrifying the neighborhood. This is where we were told that Nicaraguans want to kill us for the second time. They guy was much more drunk than the first but now I could kind of understand his anger, if that was what it was.
We were just coming into Granada – amidst the various road-side advertisements offering tourist services to tourists, one particular sign stood out: Japanese Hospital. We’ll have to remember that one if we need it, Dunia said. She was, of course, alluding to the Japanese funded building going up at Tikal, Guatemala, that we had seen; remembering the sight of some Japanese workers in immaculate hi-tech overalls and hard hats carrying shiny tool boxes and various gadgets slung from their belts. Slightly out of place on a Central American construction site. No doubt if ever you needed a hospital then a Japanese one would certainly do. A day later, I found myself there, in agony, not caring a fuck about the nationality of the doctor.
We had a long conversation afterwards about whether Dunia had ‘caused’ the whole episode by saying what she did, tempting fate. The philosophy of coincidence is a vast one, far beyond the scope of this humble blog offering although a business visit to a Nicaraguan hospital certainly deserves a mention – especially, given the satisfactory outcome and the end of my agony. I am endlessly grateful, to the Nicaraguans working there, to the Japanese who, I suppose, contributed funding and, of course, Dunia who had to negotiate the truck that she barely drives through the old colonial streets of Granada while I lay clutching my sides, thinking I was close to death.
It turned out to be a damaged rib most probably from various exertions undertaken when changing pieces of our old, rusty bus a month previously. Basically I can say that the doctors and nurses alleviated the extreme pain with shots of something like liquid MDMA; they took blood, urine tests and x-rays; they let me sleep overnight under observation and in the morning they served up the diagnosis which must have taken an experienced eye to spot as this injury is most normally seen in the knees of teenage basketball players. Well, that’s the case in the west anyway – maybe, here, where sometimes people have to work very, very hard to survive, it’s more common. All I can say is that the treatment was efficient and free.
After this scare, we had a few days rest at the Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful old crater filled with mineral water. The parking is easy but we spent a few dollars using the amenities offered by the Cultural Centre of Apoyo so that I could gently come to terms with my sudden medical condition. This is a beautiful, relaxing place to be with enough activities to keep you going for a while. Highly recommended would be some kind of contribution to their Peace Project in benefit of the local children.
A few days later we drove south and out towards Costa Rica, parking up, for the last time in Nicaragua, opposite the twin volcanoes of Ometepe, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. The border was fun – the Nicaraguans making it much more work to get out of their country than to get in, in terms of customs inspections and the various bits of paper. Maybe there is a good reason for that but I doubt it. You can sense an underlying chaos in this country, something that grows with years of civil-war possibly. One minute they might mention they want to kill you – the next they could save your life.