Having once more exceeded our tolerance for Caribbean island life (yes, it turns out such a thing is possible), the end of our last chapter saw us chugging across mainland Honduras towards the Nicaraguan border. After doing some research, we had placed ourselves in the capable hands of Omar from Tornabe Hostel, one of the few establishments in La Ceiba who had seen the largely untapped opportunity to whisk cash-strapped tourists from the Honduran Bay Islands to Leon, the next stop on the unofficial Gringo Trail.
Omar was an excellent host, far exceeding our expectations by providing a spacious air conditioned van, being organised, and playing movies on the fully-functioning DVD player. It was certainly a far cry from our experience in Puerto Escondido, and we were not complaining.
It was yet another epicly long day of travel, starting at 5am when we got up to catch the ferry from Roatan to La Ceiba, and not finishing until we finally got dropped off at our hotel in Leon at 2.30am the next day. Almost 24 hours to cross a border. Huh. Luckily, Omar and his crew were not immune to our plight, and kept us well fed by stopping off at a cool roadside fruit market where they stuffed us full of coconuts, bananas, and other sugary delights. Another stop off at some kind of strange Honduran buffet, and we were ready to pile back into the van and watch Hot Tub Time Machine 2.
Later the next morning, after being roused by insistent rumblings in our stomachs, the gang rose zombie-like from our room and began searching town for a place to eat. After going to such an effort to get there, Leon was something of a disappointment. It was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelly – the sort of things an “intrepid” traveller would claim were cultural and charming, right up until they fell through an elephant-sized hole in the sidewalk, or had their eardrums burst from having one too many VW Beetles drive past proclaiming their miscellaneous wares by way of horribly oversized loudspeakers mounted on the roof. Charming at first, yes, but fucking annoying thereafter.
But I digress. Leon: it wasn’t much, but we had four days to kill and were determined to make the most of it. We found the occasional good restaurant, located some good smoothie and ice cream bars to mitigate the incessant heat, and explored all there was to explore. Otherwise, we just chilled back at Hotel Leon Viejo, the extensive walled grounds of which provided a very pleasant getaway from the noise and chaos of the streets outside.
Our main activity in Leon, and the main reason it’s a stopoff on the Gringo Trail, was volcano boarding at Cerro Negro. After shopping around a bit, we decided to go with Maribios Tours, who offered essentially the same package as everyone else, for essentially the same price. We rocked up first thing the next morning with sturdy shoes, plenty of water, and GoPro’s ready to catch some insane adventure footage, climbed in the converted jeep with 4 others, and set off for the flanks of Cerro Negro.
The drive to the volcano was an experience in itself, taking well over an hour and involving some seriously high-speed manoeuvrings along a rutted trail composed almost entirely of volcanic sands. These sands apparently made for some treacherous driving, which seemed to excite our driver and paradoxically make him go even faster than he would on a normal paved road. It was hilarious and terrifying at the same time.
Eventually, we reached our destination without crashing into any passing cows or colliding with the various oncoming, equally high-velocity vehicles. The back door was opened, we stumbled out, were given packs with our volcano boarding essentials inside (vintage overalls, goggles, gloves, bandanna, water bottle) and presented with the boards which would see us (hopefully) gliding gracefully down the slopes of Central America’s newest volcano.
Next came the long slog up the volcano, made somewhat difficult by the almost gale force winds buffeting us and trying to rip our boards from our hands. Still, it was no Acatenango, and we made good time getting to the summit. From here, we could see just how new Cerro Negro really was, with her multiple smoking craters and skirts of new black igneous rock spreading out far below in all directions. In any other part of the world, safety buffoons would probably have shut down this operation long ago, due to imminent danger of being sizzled by a rogue eruption. But this was Nicaragua, where you do things at your own peril, and the words “liability” or “lawsuit” are laughed at. Which is actually quite refreshing, when it comes down to it.
We milled around on the summit for a while, taking in the views, scampering away from the buffeting winds, and waiting for another tour group to bugger off down the mountain. Once they’d departed on their boards, it was our turn to suit up and receive a few basic pointers on how not to get your face ripped off on your way down. I climbed into my voluminous denim overalls, stuck a bandanna around my face, strapped on my goggles, slipped on my gloves, tucked in my socks (crucial!), and secured my GoPro on my head. It was time to do some boarding.
As usual, I seemed to be the only one volunteering to go first, so I positioned my board, waited for the signal, lifted my feet and let er rip. It was fast, but not as fast as I’d anticipated considering the steep angle of the volcano slope. But fast enough for it to be ridiculously fun, and unfortunately over in less than a couple of minutes. I arrived at the bottom unscathed and ready to do it all over again, long climb back up notwithstanding.
The rest of the group boarded down without incident, and after a complimentary feast involving some sort of tiny delicious fruit, we loaded up the Jeep and headed back to town. Cerro Negro = done.
Having sampled all that Leon had to offer, it was time to move on – this time off the beaten track a little to the beachside village of Las Penitas. Use of the word “village” is not by accident – Las Penitas was tiny, a little rundown and ramshackle but still managing to exude that exotic charm our fictional intrepid traveler so lusts after. There was but one road through town, and a single-file row of buildings on each side, mostly consisting of driftwood walls and large open spaces filled with locals lounging around in hammocks listening to trumpety music or watching their favourite badly acted Mexican soap on TV.
But down from the road was the thing everyone came here for – a glorious stretch of unpopulated coastline, offering some serious chill time on the beach or some serious thrill time surfing the sizeable waves. Sandra and I, having partaken sufficiently in the former, decided to spend a day attempting the latter. Strolling up to one of the beachside board rentals which lined the main beach strip, we forked out the $10 USD for a day, grabbed our boards, and headed for the surf.
Bolstered by my successes at Puerto Escondido, I was feeling confident that these waves would prove no major challenge. But how wrong I was. Sandra and I spent the better part of half an hour simply trying to get out beyond the waves so we could start surfing, but they were so relentless that we couldn’t get far enough out without getting washed back in. The trouble was that our boards were too big to dip under the waves, so every time a swell came in it bashed us back to the start. I was determined to get out there though, and after receiving a bloody lip and a few other knocks from my board, I was out beyond the surf and ready to find a spot to start carving up.
Sadly, we’d spent so long trying to get out beyond the waves that we were both too tired to be of much use. Sandra tried for a while then had the good sense to head back in, but I stubbornly refused to head in without catching one of the mammoth waves which were pounding the beach. I began to regret that decision as I realised I was being washed further and further out to sea, with my feeble strokes no match for the impressive undertow. I spent the next half hour fighting to get back to shore, and after finally catching a single wave, that was it for the morning.
Needless to say, we were completely red from the merciless Nicaraguan sun, but we were determined to make the most of our (admittedly dirt cheap) board day rentals. And so as the sun began to set, we made another trip out to the beach and tried our hand once more at the waves, this time timing our entry to avoid the worst of the surf, and having a bit more success than in the morning. It was a considerably more pleasant experience this time, with slightly smaller waves and a glorious sunset to behold as we sat out on the water.
3 nights in Las Penitas and it was time to move on to bigger things – this time to the famed city of Granada. We had ummed and ahhhed about whether it was worth going there, but after doing some research and seeing what was on offer, we decided to spend a few nights there and check the place out. Richard, the old Canadian rocker who owned the hotel we were staying at in Las Penitas, was conveniently heading to Granada on the day of our departure, so we arranged to pay him $15 USD each to take us there. Thus 3 hours passed without incident, and upon arrival in the city we made our farewells and began exploring the city.
It was freakishly hot, possibly even hotter than Leon, but it seemed we had made a good decision – Granada was a cool city, and a vast improvement on the poohole that is Leon. Apparently this was because there was a larger expat community in Granada and it was more “touristy” – which sounds bad but in our experience it made for a far nicer establishment. I’m going to come right out and say it – Central Americans are hopelessly inept at making nice cities, so a little bit of outside Western influence goes a long way to making a place half decent.
We spent the next few days eating well, exploring the city, and relaxing back at our little hostel, which we basically had to ourselves and which was located in an old colonial villa with an inner garden. It was sweaty as hell, but peaceful.
Next up was the island of Ometepe, which if I recall correctly translates to “two hills”. After a one hour taxi ride (negotiated by the owner of our Granada hostel, who as usual “had a friend”), we took passage in a run down ferry across Lago Nicaragua to the island, which was aptly named – the two volcanos, one dormant and one active, rose side by side above the water, like a pair of mismatched boobs.
Ometepe was a cool spot, largely on account of the fact that it’s a settlement on top of an active volcanic island in the middle of giant lake. Oh, and the lake has sharks in it. Pretty unique, as far as these kind of things go. And the bonus was that there was a surprisingly good range of restaurants, so we didn’t go hungry. Of the four days we spent on the island, we spent three of them just chilling at our nice hotel just outside of the main town of Moyogalpa, which had expansive grounds and delicious complimentary garden breakfasts.
On the fourth day, we combined all of the typical touristy things into one mammoth effort, hiring a driver and tour guide to drive us around the island in their crappy old van. We saw basically everything there is to see, stopping off at Laguna Charco Verde to check out the butterflies and take an enjoyable nature walk with our knowledgeable guide around the jungle alongside a series of wetlands. Highlights of the walk were hanging out with the howler monkeys and watching our guide set off little ant traps in the ground (they dig a kind of depression in the sand, and when a bug falls in they rear up and grab it. Sneaky!).
Next was Ojo de Agua, a half man-made, half natural spring-fed swimming pool which provided a glorious reprieve from the heat. We languished in the pools and utilised the inevitable rope swing for a couple of hours, then moved on to a seaside lunch at Santo Domingo, followed by some beach time at the deserted Playa San Fernando.
Finally, we briefly visited a small local town to get a feel for local life (nothing too exciting, but our tour guide was a little insistent on it – we did, however, get to see a curious exhibit in the middle of a park showing large models of the two volcanoes, inside which were located a Virgin Mary in one and a bible in the other). Last up was sunset at Punta Jesus Maria, the westernmost point of the island offering awesome views of the setting sun and cold beers while you take in the sight.
The next morning, we made our way back to the ferry with the knowledge that we’d made the most of our time in Ometepe.
Our succeeding port of call was the tourist mecca of San Juan del Sur, a beachside town offering a vibrant party vibe, bucketloads of hostels and excellent surf. We once again hired a private driver to take the four of us from the ferry terminal in San Jorge to our digs in San Juan, and in less than an hour we had dropped our bags at the horribly overpriced and over-marketed Hotel Posada Bahia Azul and were ready to explore.
As far as Central American beach towns went, San Juan del Sur had a good feel about it, with plenty of restaurants, an enthusiastic tourist crowd from all over the world, and reasonable views of the surrounding landscape and sea. I was, however, a little surprised to discover that the bay on which the town is built is actually kind of nasty, with brown water and various storm and sewer outfalls from the town meaning that only the locals choose to go for a dip in the murky waters. In order to access the beach and surf which San Juan is famous for, then, you had to take a bumpy shuttle about 30-40 minutes outside of town to one of the many adjacent bays. Here, we could chill to our hearts content, provided we didn’t stay past the last returning shuttle at 5pm.
Mostly we just relaxed in San Juan, finding ourselves with increasingly diminished energy levels the more we travelled in Central, and just strolled around observing the antics of various douchey Australian and American tourists and sampling the decent local cuisine. We did, however, take a trip out to Playa Maderas, where we teamed up with a nice American lady who showed us where a glorious little secluded beach was to the northwest, away from the crowds, and Stefan, Sandra and I also took a long stroll up the hill to see Cristo Del La Misericordia (Christ of the Mercy), a giant statue of our good friend Jesus which loomed over the town and bay and, at 26 metres in height, made for an imposing figure.
And just like that, it was time to return to civilisation. After 5 months of roughing it in Mexico and Central America, we had discovered that we were starting to lose enthusiasm for each successive destination, and it was time to go back to the relative sanity of the US and enjoy some of the comforts we had gone for so long without. We had planned to travel all the way down to the top of South America, but there just wasn’t any point in doing that if we weren’t going to enjoy it, so we took a private shuttle back to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, stayed one night in a truly wacky gallery/zoo of a hotel, and flew back to Phoenix the next day. It was time to dust off the RV and tear up the highways of the Western US once more.