Tag Archive for 'cowboys'

Nicaraguan adventures

Kilometers this post: 654 biking, 12.4 hitching in 10 days of riding.


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The reason we liked Nicaragua so much didn’t have much to do with successes in tourism, but rather with making our own strange and winding path through the country and with the characters we met on our way. Actually, some of our finest moments were born directly from fantastically memorable failures in tourism. After spending a lazy Easter Sunday afternoon in the northern city of Estelí, we set off up a very steep, very loose gravel road in search of the Miraflor reserve, home to Nicaragua’s most celebrated cloud forest. We got a late start, and a couple of hours into our slog (some parts were too steep to ride and the loose rocks took their toll on our patience at times), when a couple of nice guys in a giant, empty truck encouraged us to hop in or we’d never make it to the top by dark, we took them up on their offer. It was a good move. While we didn’t end up hitching for many kilometers, especially since they took us down a wrong turn and we had to backtrack a bit, the ride did save us a few painful hours of up. The Miraflor is an interesting place, because while it is a protected area, lots of farmers live there and are allowed to grow coffee and a few other crops. We even saw some folks burning the hillside to clear it for farming! Apparently, we didn’t make it far enough into the heart of the reserve to see the orchids and birds we were hoping to see, but it was a beautiful landscape nonetheless. Also, if we had made it, we probably would have needed to stay in an eco-tourism cabin of some kind instead of with a fantastically kind family who put us up in the earthen store room of their house when we asked to camp. They even brought us a table and chairs and the very smiley wheelchair-bound son shooed the dogs away with a whip while we cooked our pasta.

From the reserve, we rolled around through the northern countryside to the city of Jinotega, and while it was late in the afternoon when we pulled in, we decided to brave a late-day climb up to 1500m where we camped in the blissfully cool air beside a comedor. This energized us enough to bike our longest day yet (also, it was quite a lot of downhill) – 105km! Yes, many bike tourists log this on a daily basis, but not us, so we were pretty proud of ourselves. This MEGA-long day put us within a measly 60 flat kms from Leon, our next stop, so the next day we decided we had time for a detour to some “hervideros,” boiling volcanic pools of mud at the base of the active volcano Telica. We were chuckling a bit at how loosely guarded the area was compared with what liability would dictate was necessary in the good ol’ US of A, when a Nicaraguan kiddo ran up to us and put a small clay figure in each of our hands, telling us they were made from the hot clay around the pools. Sure that he’d ask for some dinero, Andrew tried to give his back, but the kid turned out to be incredibly awesome and not interested in hustling us at all, just in following us around and offering us interesting and helpful tips about the mud, the volcano, the trees, and whatever else came to mind. He was soon joined by an adorable muchacha, and we invited them both to have a soda with us. When we explained that we needed to find some internet to make a reservation in León, they happily took us on a walk through town to a café, where they watched the speed of our typing with some fascination. Goodbye hugs, and we were on our way to the colonial city of León, where as superb luck would have it, we had reserved two nights in a hostel where our buddy Luis from Mexico City, whom we had met back in Guatemala, was swinging in a hammock. We didn’t muster the energy for much sightseeing in León, since it was unbearably hot. We visited the art museum and the large, air-conditioned supermarket, chatted with Luis, and Andrew spent many hours in concentration making (drum roll, please) alcohol stoves out of tin cans! It turns out, it is hard to find clean fuel (white gas) to burn in our MSR Dragonfly in Nicaragua. So we had been burning diesel. Which smells like diesel. Andrew’s project has yielded a much faster, much cleaner way to prepare our ever-growing repertoire of one-pot meals.

From León, we were off to Granada, which was a trip the headwinds prevented us from completing in one day, so we picked a town in between that seemed like it would be big enough to find an hospedaje at the end of a long day of riding. Well, we were wrong about that, and found ourselves in a pleasant town square around sunset with nowhere to spend the night, too tired to continue out the other side of town. We were about to go ask for permission to put up our tent in the churchyard, when a bold 8-year-old boy ventured to invite us to spend the night at his house. That sounded great to us, and he explained that since his mom wasn’t around and he lived with only his grandmother, there was plenty of room for us to stay inside. We thanked him, and he encouraged us to grab some dinner before we headed home, because, he explained, home was a ways down the road. We tucked into some carne asada that a lady on the street heaped onto a plate with gallo pinto and plantains, and then started onward with our young friend. Soon, he suggested that he ride on Andrew’s top tube and we could all ride to the house because it would be quicker. OK, this was getting interesting, because it was dark, and we hadn’t really thought we’d be going far, but all of a sudden we were zipping down the highway three kilometers to a dark dirt road where our young guide told us to turn left. Then, we were wandering through a dimly lit community of tin shacks, and when we arrived at one, found it boarded up, locked, and abandoned. Over the next few minutes we prodded our friend for more explanation, and gleaned that this shack had at some point belonged to his mother, his grandma’s house was back in town, and he planned to leave us there and head back on the bus. Nervous, but brave enough to try setting up camp, we took out our headlamps. He told us that wasn’t a good idea here. It would be bad to attract too much attention. At this point, tired and frustrated, but under the impression that staying the night could well result in waking up to find our bikes gone, we decided to bike back to the town and try the church after all. Making our way through some not-so-pleasant leering and jeering by local dudes, another kid on a bike came up beside us. Something about his manner was the most confidence-inspiring part of our day, and he encouraged us brightly, but not without some urgency, to follow him to his house where we’d be safe. He explained that his mom had sent him to retrieve us. We took him up on his offer, and were soon welcomed, bikes and all, into a large, one-room ramshackle cabin with lots of beds where the whole family slept. We were told we’d take the double bed and the mom would climb in with her sister for the night. That settled, we all sat around drinking soda and chatting until bedtime. The incredible kindness, care, and generosity at the end of a fairly unpleasant day and unsettling evening transformed the whole thing into one of the top ten most memorable days of our trip. Sometimes, we are just plain floored by the loveliness of people. Though, lessons learned include: get all the information from the 8-year-old before you follow him home.

We made it to Granada on Lake Nicaragua safe and sound, and spent another day off the bikes enjoying perhaps the most charming-looking colonial city of our trip so far. We made friends with a guy in our hostel who reported that when he was a bike tourist, he ate mainly raw meat and raw eggs. Huh. Like we say, lots of different ways to do bike touring. We hear that lots of folks either ride the west side of Lake Nicaragua (about 160km long) to a land crossing into Costa Rica, and others take a boat the length of the lake, stopping on the island Ometepe which sits with its two awesome volcanoes in the middle of the lake. We chose for the third option, which involved 60km of unpaved road (parts of it very unpleasant) and plenty of river crossings, some of them sans ferry or bridge. Then there was 200ish km of beautifully paved rolling road through cowboy country. We are really happy to have seen this part of Nicaragua, though our days were long and hot. We used lots of bus stops for snack breaks, and when we were lucky, an old, bowlegged Nicaraguan cowboy would be hangin’ out in the shade with us, dropping all his “s”s and chatting up a storm. After our final stretch rife with steep little hills, we pulled into San Carlos, ready for another watery border crossing into Costa Rica, country #7.