Sunday, March 29, 2015

Volcano Boarding, and other mini-adventures, in Leon

After my last day at school and a fun weekend in Granada with all of my favorite things (friends, good food via barbecue, drinks, and some dancing), I decided to go to Leon for a few days. My volunteer days were over, and I was looking forward to a free week to just travel and get to know more of Nicaragua.

The second largest city in Nicaragua, Leon is kind of a tourist trap like Granada but with a completely different flavor. There is no main tourist strip like the Calzada in Granada, but there is a distinct culture, a discreet feel to it unlike any other Nicaraguan city. It was a key location during the revolution and civil war in the late 70s, and you can still feel that heat, both literally and figuratively, bubbling just below the surface.

The first afternoon there, I booked volcano boarding at Cerro Negro with Bigfoot Hostel. That sentence probably makes no sense to those who haven't been here or heard of it. Cerro Negro is a volcano about an hour out of Leon and is one of the most active in the country. Its sides are covered in volcanic ash and rock, which makes it ideal to slide down on a wooden board with a panel of formica on the bottom. At least that's what someone thought a few decades ago. Now it's become one of the most sought after experiences for adrenaline junkies. CNN named it number two on its list of fun but terrifying experiences. I knew I was in for a good/maybe scary time.

The hike up the mountain was tiring, and I wasn't even carrying my board like most people. There was an option to pay $5 for one of the guides to carry it; it was the best money I spent all day. There are two craters at the top of Cerro Negro, and our group admired them while waiting for another tour group to go ahead of us. The tour guide, Ashley, asked us to follow her over to the other crater where she was going to show us an "experiment." On the trip there, she asked if anyone had, by chance, brought any butter. Of course no one had and I wondered what it was for. When we got to the edge of the second crater, she told us to dig our shoes a little bit to feel the heat of the volcano underneath the ground. Then she dug with her own shoe and pulled out a small potato from the ground. Apparently the day before, she'd buried a potato there to see if it would bake. The inside was a little dark and burned, but still cooked through. I felt the heat from the ground one more time, and thought about sliding down the side of this mountain in just a few minutes. If it could burn a potato, what could it do to me while sliding down at 20 or 25 mph??

The second crater at the top.

How to really bake a potato.

We suited up in our orange onesies, and I waited for the majority of people to go. They disappeared over the ridge, the mountain too steep to watch them descend (thank you, Will, for help with this wording). Eventually, it was my turn to sit on the hard board and wait. The guide motioned for me to go, and began shuffling my feet. The slope became steeper and soon I was moving my legs to try to keep straight. Ashley told us to never put our feet on the board, but always on either side of the board on the surface of the volcano. We could steer with our feet, but I found it difficult. It veered right and left, and I barely had time to register which leg to move to steer. I picked up speed and sand and rocks flew at my face and in my mouth. Thank goodness for goggles.

My suit was a bit big.

Trying my very best not to crash.

Getting into it by now, despite the look on my face.
After about 30 seconds, I could see the group waiting below. This was the steepest part, the last 100 meters. I tried to be as sleek as possible while also trying to avoid crashing. The wind rushed past me, and I watched the people get closer and I got faster. Then it felt too fast. I worried I would crash into someone, but at that point I really couldn't do anything about it. So I embraced it. I enjoyed the last few meters, feeling the wind rush through my hair and the heat of the volcano below me as I sped down toward the crowd.

The ground leveled off, and I stopped a few feet away from the group. Glee rushed through me. It was over, and it was amazing.

I had gone 55 kph (35 mph). When the guy told me my speed, he added, "muy rapido, chica." I could only smile. The fastest girl went 64 kph. On the trip back, Bigfoot gave us a warm cookie and a cold beer. The adrenaline rush was over, and everyone was more chatty, relaxed and loose from the beer and the morning's excitement.

Back at the hostel that afternoon, I met the family of some friends that lives in Leon, and spent a pleasant few days with this very sweet and hospitable family exploring their beautiful city. I visited the cathedral, the Ruben Dario museum, went to a KaraoKanta bar, ate some of the best fried chicken at a very local restaurant, and since they didn't speak any English, I practiced a lot of Spanish.

Gorgeous cathedral rooftop.
View of Parque Central from the Cathedral.

Our tour guide explaining some Nicaraguan legends and traditions.
Traditional "gigantona" statue.

I left Leon on Wednesday, but not before lots of hugs and gifts and promises to give their love to my family. Climbing into the hot and crowded bus back to Managua, I felt hungry, and the only thing I could think of was a volcano-baked potato.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Frogs and Butterflies: My Weekend in the South of Nicaragua

Last weekend, my friend Connie and I went to the south of Nicaragua to see Rio San Juan. The river runs along the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and we’d heard it was beautiful. We set off Thursday afternoon, and after a 9 hour journey (I’d rather not relive it here, if you don’t mind…) we stayed in the town of San Carlos for the night. San Carlos sits on the mouth of the Rio San Juan where it meets Lake Nicaragua. There wasn’t a lot going on there at 12:30 at night, and we were relieved to find a hostel after the one we reserved didn’t open its doors for us. 

On Friday morning, a cool breeze from the lake greeted us as we ate a typical Nicaraguan breakfast--scrambled eggs, gallo pinto, and Nica cheese--while overlooking a busy park next to the riverbank.

Rio San Juan at San Carlos

From our breakfast spot.

We then took a riverboat even farther south to El Castillo, a cozy river town that was used as a fortress for the English and Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries when pirates from the Caribbean came up the river trying to take over this area. I saw no Jack Sparrow memorial at the fortress, but it was still cool. Besides a lot of great reviews from Lonely Planet, we found very little to do in town. We visited a butterfly farm, took walks, saw some local teenagers play baseball, and tried most of the restaurants on the main little strip.

The town of El Castillo

La Fortaleza

The highlight of the trip was our jungle tour on Saturday morning. Our guide, Orlando, showed us frogs, birds, huge ants that can chomp holes in your shirt (he chose my already tattered t-shirt to demonstrate), and amazing plants and trees. We trekked off the path for a while looking for a toucan and I got my rented boots very muddy and wet. It was fantastic.

We took a boat to the jungle reserve. This is the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Notice all the little Nicaraguan flags in the ground to the right.
With Orlando in the thick of it.
After a nice swim in an inlet.
The nights were cool, and we ate dinner Friday and Saturday night al fresco at Border’s Coffee which, despite the very American sounding name, was very rustic. The owner was a gregarious blonde Nicaraguan man who brought out lanterns when a power outage engulfed us in darkness for about a half hour on Friday. He welcomed us back on Saturday, and we feasted on pasta with white sauce and garlic and spent a few hours chatting about everything under the sun and moon and stars.

Sunday, we got up at 4am to catch the 5:15am riverboat to San Carlos. After another long, long bus ride, we finally got back to our neck of the woods. We ate street food for dinner, and I'm convinced there's nothing like a good portion of gallo pinto and tostones to settle an exhausted but invigorated soul.

Monday, March 9, 2015

To the Bat Cave!

This weekend, I wanted to do some things in and around Granada. It's amazing to think that I only have a few more weeks in this beautiful country, and of course, now I don't feel like there is enough time to do everything I want to do.

Last Friday, after an exhausting week at school, I had a relaxing afternoon then decided to get street food for dinner. Street food will no doubt be one of my favorite parts of this city because it is simple, good food for cheap. Vendors set up shop on the side of the street and sell grilled chicken, platanos maderas or verdes (bananas either fried or baked and sweetened), the traditional gallo pinto (rice and beans), and coleslaw. Some vendors sell a ton of other fried foods like empanadas, fried potatoes with cheese, Nica cheese (a salty cheese that they serve with everything here. I don't like it much..) and something similar to chalupas. One order easily lasts for two meals, and I usually warm up my leftovers the next day for lunch. All this for 115 cordobas (a little more than 5 bucks).

My friends and I then did our favorite Friday night activity: ladies' night at Reilly's. Reilly's is a pub just down the street from our house, and on Fridays, girls drink for free. Rum and cokes flow from 9-12 and the whole group gets pretty tipsy sipping the strong rum for literally nothing. After Reilly's, we headed to Kelly's, another pub that has a DJ and dance floor, great outdoor patio, and plenty of nicaraguenses to mingle with. After only a few minutes on the dance floor, I'm usually soaked with sweat. Gross, right? The lack of air conditioning and hundreds of bodies in one room will do that to a person. Not to mention I'm usually dancing my heart out. The moonwalk usually comes out at least once during a Kelly's night. After plenty of dancing and sweating, I went to the patio to sit for a minute and have some good conversation.

The next morning, a couple girls in my house went to Kathy's Waffle House, a place a few blocks away from us that serves amazing breakfast. I feasted on a bacon omelette, gallo pinto, hash browns and buttery toast. I haven't had pancakes or waffles there yet, but it's on my to do list. I'm sure I'll visit it again before I leave. 

Saturday Afternoon, a group of us decided to do the Masaya Volcano night tour. It is the most active volcano in Nicaragua, and last erupted in 2008 spewing only ash and steam. While we didn't see any lava, the smoke emanating from the crater is quite impressive. 

Completely unnecessary gas masks, and the crater behind me.

The view from the top!

No pasa, Beth!!
After the sun set, we descended into the bat caves that are connected through an intricate system to the volcano. As our guide said, we didn't need to be afraid that the bats would hit us. Since they fly using sonar, they could sense where we were and avoid us while flying around the caves. We descended 180 meters, and I admit my claustrophobia started acting up a bit. After a few deep breathes and a diverting conversation, I was okay but certainly didn't want to be there longer than necessary. Once we got to the end, our guide told us to turn off our flashlights and stay silent for a few seconds. I clutched my friend, trying to not think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom...which only made me think of it more. We were enveloped in total darkness; I'd never experienced darkness so complete and unfiltered. The whole tour was a very cool experience, and one you must do if you ever find yourself in Nicaragua.

Oh, hey Connie.

Sunday was a lazy one. It's the day of rest, no? We had brunch at Lucy's Hostel and Restaurant, another favorite of mine. Theirs is an open courtyard with delicious breakfast for only 60 cord (about $2.25) and a nice lunch for 70. A family owns the hostel and restaurant and could not be sweeter. Then we walked through the park, among the stalls filled with tshirts, jewelry, purses and clothes. I accidentally haggled for an anklet and got it for 30 cord less than she originally asked. She must have known the first price she gave me was ridiculous, so when I put it down and began to walk away, she instantly cut it by 30. The blue beaded anklet is now on my left ankle. Every time I see it, I'll remember this weekend, and the city that has crept it's way into my life. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Weekend in the Treetops

I woke up for the 7th time that night and saw that the two hammocks on either side of me were empty. It was a cool night, but the breeze usually picks up when you’re suspended in a tree house on the side of a hill. Determined to enjoy just one night in a hammock, I didn’t want to move to the mattress on the floor behind me. But my resolve was fading quickly. I heard Sarah shuffle to the mattress earlier in the night, and Beth followed a few hours after. The sky was dark, so I knew I only had a few more hours to endure. Shutting my eyes, I tried to force comfort.

We arrived at Poste Rojo the day before to enjoy the tree house hostel we’d heard so much about. A fellow volunteer in Granada worked there for a few weeks and praised its fun atmosphere and Full Moon parties. After a long week, it seemed like the perfect mini-getaway for a Saturday night. What could be cooler than sleeping in a tree house while exploring the area outside of Granada?

Three other travelers joined us on the free shuttle from a hostel in Granada. After driving about 15 minutes southwest of the city, it dropped us off and we climbed the stone steps up to “reception,” a two-story tree house with a desk and four hammocks on the bottom level and a shared kitchen on the top level. We checked in and found the hammock house, only accessed by a red walk bridge that shakes when you cross it, and then explored the area, which took all of 10 minutes. To one side of the reception house was another small tree house with two hammocks and a nice view of the valley below. The steps up to the platform were rickety and my legs shook as I ascended. There was another house of dorm rooms and a bathroom behind reception for all of us to use. And that’s about it.

The hostel is in between owners right now, so our hosts were four volunteers who had been there about a week. Another Nicaraguan woman checked us in but quickly left after we were settled. The volunteers seemed unsure of things, and at one point asked us what they should charge for drinks at the next Full Moon Party, whenever that would be. We spent the afternoon in the hammocks, reading, playing darts and a game of Irish Snap. The sunset interrupted the card game though, and with good reason. I couldn’t count all the colors in the sky as the sun dipped below the hills across the valley. A few people burned their trash in the valley below, but I could only see smoke trails as they dissipated into the sky. It was the only sign of civilization below, and I didn’t wish for any more. The sky turned from pink to purple to blue. Feeling the breeze cool my face after weeks of sweat and heat, I was grateful for the little escape, however discombobulated it was.

After a somewhat disappointing dinner of very little veggie curry, I ordered a Toña and we spent the evening in the hammocks visiting with the workers and other guests. With little else to do and our tummies still rumbling, Sarah, Beth and I went to bed a little before 10.

Sarah went to the floor mattress first, then Beth. Then, an hour or so before sunrise, I caved. Shuffling over to the mattress, I cared nothing for my hammock.

The next morning, I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of coffee for guests. Sipping slowly, I lounged in yet another hammock—this one I liked—and read my book. After a breakfast of eggs, ham, and dry toast, we checked out and said our goodbyes.

Though I’m not sure I can recommend Poste Rojo as a fancy getaway, it was a nice break from Granada and nice to detach from everything in the world. No wi-fi is guaranteed to force anyone to enjoy her surroundings. To finish off the weekend, we took a tuc-tuc back to Granada. The only thing I can liken a tuc-tuc to is a golf cart, but more enclosed, three-wheeled and much faster. The driver took a few random turns in Granada before we wheeled down Calle Real Xalteva close to our neighborhood. Walking through Parque Central back to the house, I felt the familiar Granada heat on my shoulders, heard the men selling gafas in the park, and smelled the street vendors’ food. It wasn’t home, but it sure felt a hell of a lot like it.

"Shuttle" ride = ride in the back of a truck


Howler monkeys were all over the place!

The only way to get to the hammock house.


Greetings from the tree house! 

This weekend will probably be pretty slow for me, but in a few weeks I'll be off to travel around Nicaragua. Stay tuned for more updates!