I’ve had difficulty writing this short piece on Nicaragua. A combination of being busy exploring the country, surfing and “working” have made it hard to find the time to sit down and put this to ‘paper’. So I write this whilst bouncing around on the back of many buses I have found myself spending 90% of my life the last week. Consequently there are going to be some typos in here so bare with me.
N I C A R A G U A N I M M I G R A T I O N (Exciting reading!)
Where to start? I won’t bore you with the 12 hours spent leaving El Salvador, entering no man’s land, entering Honduras, leaving Honduras, entering another no man’s land, and then finally getting into Nicaragua whilst being told my fingers weren’t acceptable enough for the scanners. Why do boarder crossings fill you with so much stress? Why does it have to be so painfully complex and slow and full of the most miserable people on the planet? When these people make the decision they want to work on immigration at the boarder of their respective countries are they attracted to the misery that surrounds them? Bet the Xmas party at the Nicaraguan boarder is absolute jokes!
On a plus note I shared the 12 hour bus ride with a self titled Canadian porn star and her chirpy friend so that was interesting. I’m still not quite sure whether she was or not but it was a bit like sitting next to Pamela Anderson for the ride! 12 hours went quite quickly!
The little bit of Honduras that we travelled through looked very beautiful. Maybe for another visit.
I arrived in Léon with a few days to spare before I had to get my 90 day visa extended. First light I made my way to immigration which was conveniently situated right behind my hostel. I fill out the form and everything seems plain sailing until I’m told I need evidence of onward travel. Evidence I am leaving the country. Given I travel by local buses primarily I’m not quite sure how I’m going to prove this. I’m told to return with a plane ticket.
I find a website which charges $10 to provide you a fake airfare for these exact situations. Foolishly though I accidentally buy it for a date in excess of 90 days so it’s of no use to me anyway. There’s also the free way of doing this I’ve recently found out so explore this if you are ever in the same situation.
Rather than buy another one I decide to make the 2 hour bus ride to Managua, the much maligned capital city of Nica. There are two immigration offices. One is dead close to the bus terminal. It’s too good to be true. I get turned away instantly. They aren’t processing my type of visa applications today. I need to get a taxi across this big dirty city to the other office. It’s starting to look like this is going to cost me more than just buying another $10 fake air fare. I treat myself to one of those naughty Cinnabon rolls you find in the US shopping malls and airports to make up for my unlucky run with immigration the last 24 hours.
Massive lines await at my third immigration centre of the day. The form is confusing and given it’s all in Spanish I’m struggling to fill it out. SpanishDict app helps a bit.
I get told to sit down on my first visit to the counter, no explanation is given. The woman barely looks at me or my passport. An hour passes and I think she has forgotten me. Her queue dies down and she calls me again. This time she tells me my 90 day visa doesn’t expire until another 20 days so I need to go away. I explain to her I entered Guatemala on the 2nd September and that the 90 days is up in two days on the 30th November. She will not have it. I repeat this to her over and over again. She repeats her retort. I’m going to lose it with her pretty soon. I can see that she is miss reading 2 / Sept 2016 as 21 Sept 2016. The slash looks a little bit like a 1 I guess. I point this out to her. But she doesn’t like to admit being wrong so she takes my passport and tells me to sit down again.
Positively though this is all conducted in Spanish and I’m happy that I understand most of what she is saying and I know that I am making myself understood.
Another hour passes. When I’m called again there is a guy there who looks like he might be her boss. Between us we convince this miserable lady the entry date is the 2nd and not the 21st. My applications gets moved along and eventually I have my visa extension stamp and I’m out of there. I navigate myself back to the bus terminal just in time for the last bus back to Leon. It’s been a weird couple of days spent on buses and in odd official buildings full of upside down smiles.
Finally I am free from any administrative burden and can start exploring Nicaragua.
E S T E L I
I rent a moto for four days and set off for the north of the country. I want to explore Esteli and the mountain ranges there and head to Matagalpa where I’ve been told there is a voluntary programme on a small organic farm.
The drive is really cool, mainly long straight roads with no other cars in sight.
I do get stopped by the police of four separate occasions in the first hour though which gets a bit annoying. I’m expecting to pay a bride but I think they are just curious as to who the pasty man behind the mask is.
I drive for about four hours until I come to a standstill. Not another mechanical issue! Looks like I’m out of petrol. Luckily one of the near by houses sells gas so I fill her up and head for Esteli. I arrive in the dark and stop at the nearest hostel. I don’t know why but driving motorbikes really exhausts me. I slept from about 8pm through to 8am.
Pip and Ross are also in Esteli so we arrange to do the Somoto Canyon together.
It’s a beautiful hidden gem and a really fun trip spent jumping in and out of the cold Canyon water.
A great day is further enhanced when I drive past a papusaria! I thought I’d seen the last of these but no! I stop for three classic queso con friolis. I chat with the owner who is obviously El Salvadorian. He tells me in Esteli there is a large El Salvadorian population and two more papusarias he knows of.
When I arrive back I move my stuff over to the hostel where Pip and Ross are staying.
There’s only a papusaria right opposite the hostel! I go straight in. This little joint delivers possibly my favourite paps so far, massive and super cheesy. They also have an insane spicy carrot and pickled onion salsa thing which I lash on top of the papusas. It almost feels healthy the amount of salad that is getting poured all over my plate.
M I R A F L O R N A T I O N A L R E S E R V E
The following day I drive to Miraflor National Reserve with the expectation to go for a massive long walk deep into the woods before driving to Matagalpa to try and get some voluntary work. Miraflor is only 18km away from Esteli and is a super fun drive along dirt roads. There’s no real entrance to the national park so I park up and turn maps.me on and go for a long walk. It’s a really cool spot, it’s vast and mountainous. The trees have this strange cotton like material hanging down from them and sway in the wind. I really like it here, it’s not like anything else I’ve seen and I don’t see another person in the four hours I’m there. I’d like to stay longer and just keep walking.
This is another example of a trip you can do solo without paying the quadruple charge Hostels and agencies charge. A chicken bus rides right into the reserve if you don’t have access to a bike or a car.
The drive to Matagalpa through the reserve is incredible. I stop lots to take pictures and just marvel at the beauty of the landscape. It’s one of my favourite places on the trip so far.
The day gets better with a sensational feed at a roadside diner in Jinotaga. This sets me back $2.
Eventually I make it to the small organic farm up in the hills of Matagalpa. I’m greeted by a long haired naked boy of about four and his recently bathed little brother, also naked. Their mum follows them to the front door shortly after.
I explain I’d been told about their project and would like to volunteer. She seems a bit confused and asks me to speak to her husband who is back in town selling stuff at the market. She gives me his description and rough whereabouts. My listening in Spanish is still pretty poor but I’m guessing there can’t be too many men of this description selling artisan products at the market. When I get down there it’s rammed with people and I drive about trying to find the shop she had described to me. I ask after the guy but know one seems to know him.
I need to have the bike back by 6pm and it’s already 2pm so I make the decision to leave. It just wasn’t meant to be. Another opportunity will present itself further down the line.
The drive back through the brilliantly named El Sauce made up for the disappointment of not getting any work at the farm. For about 90km I hammered it along dirt tracks traversing beautiful green mountains. This really rivalled the drive around Lago Atitlán, it was that good.
Just as I’m working my way towards Leon with enough time to spare I get pulled over by the cops again. This time rightly so. I’m trying to turn left into the lane for oncoming traffic turning left. This is right in front of the police stationed beside the road. I expect money to be exchanged but after explaining I am a tourist and don’t know the roads well they seem OK with my explanation and the fact I’m not American seems to go down well with them.
The bike makes it back on time. This journey was relatively plain sailing for once.
G R A N A D A
I set off for Granada the next day. Granada is a colonial city not too much different from Antigua in Guatemala with bright coloured old buildings lining cobbled streets, except it’s not as cool or fun.
It does have a sick array of fake Nike trainers. At the local market I negotiate two pairs for about £19 each. They look legit and fit like a glove.
The food market isn’t too bad either. These pickled concoction are muy fuerte!
L A G O A P O Y O & M A S A Y A V O L C A N O
Besides buying fake trainers my main draw to Granada is its proximity to Masaya Volcano and Lago Apoyo which are both close by.
I’m amazed how expensive a lot of these trips are through agents and hostels so I spend some time working out how to do them solo.
I spend 30 minutes on the chicken bus to Masaya, from which I walk up the volcano to the rim of Lago Apoyo. I pass a group of lads playing football. They’ve got full strips on, It’s Newcastle United v AC Milan.
The lake is incredible and you can see for miles. To the right is Volcan Mombacho and beyond the crater lake is lake Nicaragua and mainland. It’s a beautiful site.
This can only be ascended by vehicle. I don’t have one so the park warden takes me to the top. You only get 5 minutes at the crater. Something to do with the sulphur although I’m a bit cynical of this given there is no odour at all at the top.
I arrive at the rim at about 4:30pm. I can see the lava bubbling away at the bottom. It’s quite impressive. I’ve seen pictures from night time trips and I think the lava looks more spectacular at night with a dark back drop but it was still pretty amazing to see the earth bubbling away not too far beneath us.
This trip cost me $12 with buses. The hostel in Grandad was asking for $25. It took no extra effort to make this journey on my own. And it feels way more rewarding consequently. From here on I’m not going to pay for any tour excursion unless there really is no other option.
G I G A N T E B A Y
Next stop is Gigante Bay on the Pacific Coast. I’d been carrying my board around Leon and Granada so it was time to get back out in the sea.
Getting to Gigante Bay is not the easiest. There is only one connecting bus from Rivas at 1:30pm Monday to Friday. It is also well documented that when you get to Rivas you will be lied to non stop by taxi drivers trying to get you in one of their taxis at 20 times the price of the chicken bus. Even when the bus is parked there with Gigante written on it they try and scam you. “It’s not operating today.” “It’s broken down.” Etc etc. What these guys fail to realise is the World Wide Web is full of accounts detailing how shitty Rivas and the taxistas are. Warning after warning to ignore them are posted so everyone is wise to their tricks so I hope this behaviour will stop soon because having to endure the bullshit for 2.5 hours was painful.
Another reason to go to Gigante was because I’d seen a volunteering opportunity posted on workaway.info at a cool hostel on the beach. 4 hours of “work” would get me free accommodation and lunch.
As soon as I arrived at Camino Hostel I had a good feeling about the place. A chalk board with the words “be careful, you might never want to leave” is hanging from the door.
I want to speak to the owner but he’s not around so I go for a surf which was a great introduction to the waves of Nica. Beautiful sunset and jungle scenes on a remote beach. Pretty dreamy shizzle!
It’s Monday night and the surf camp next door holds a weekly burger night so I shower and head over to that. There’s a great crowd of people there and a really nice energy about the place. Everyone chatting and just having fun. I get introduced to the hostel chef who also doubles up as the yogi. He’s an absolute character and clearly enjoys a little drink. He’s a funny guy.
I meet loads of sound people and get chatting to the editor of the Gigante Times who invites me to write an article for her online paper. It’s strange but I almost feel I could write a fair sized piece on the place already and I’ve only just arrived.
There’s a real intrigue about the place and the people who reside here. It’s a small stretch of beach, it’s a small town, the total inhabitants can’t be much more than 100. Minus the local fisherman this I is made up of a lot of ex patriots mainly from USA or Canada.
I’m starting to hear stories of guys who left the US behind having become disillusioned with life there or those if they returned would be locked away for crimes committed. As the days roll by these stories become more frequent and I postpone writing for the Gigante Times. Every day presents more interesting stories.
For example, fishermen with close ties to Central American presidents who intern are linked to big time drug smuggling.
Recovering heroin addicts unable to return to the US for possession charges which will see them locked up for a long long time.
More and more of these stories reveal themselves every day. But for everyone of these kind of stories there is a tale of just wanting a better life and having had enough with commercialism and North American politics.
I’m told that I need to go to yoga at 7.30am the following morning to meet the owner and discuss work.
As it turns out the only rule of working at Camino Hostel is to attend 7.30am yoga every morning. That will not be a problem.
I sign up straight away and join the chef in the kitchen shortly after yoga. He is down a cook for a week or so.
He’s an absolute nutter and great fun to work alongside. He’s either singing in a funny made up accent or pretending to be English. He’s full of beans. Pumped on life. He generally cracks open a beer just before mid day. He likes a wee smoke too. It makes for an interesting few hours in the hot, sweaty kitchen. The locals who work at Camino look bamboozled when he sings his demands in Spanish but they clearly love working with him because they too are smiling and laughing most of the time even when it’s mayhem in there.
Like everyone else, Chef has an interesting story too. He trained as a dancer before being drawn to commerce where he excelled and was pretty successful if you define success by how big your bank balance is. However, if you define success by happiness then this guy was struggling big time. Overweight and unhappy with life in general he quit and focused his attention on becoming a chef from one of the most prestigious culinary institutes in the USA. He then spent many years working in Michelin star restaurants in New York and California. He also took up yoga to give him more stamina in the kitchen. In doing so and changing his lifestyle from being a desk monkey he lost 160lbs (80kgs). When this life became too stressful he sold everything and left for Nicaragua and the Corn Islands on the Caribbean coast. He then found his way to Camino and has been the resort chef on this tiny bay in Nicaragua for the last seven months. He’s 47 but looks about 37 at a push. It’s a really inspiring story of personal transformation and not settling on being anything but happy.
Working with him in the furnace for nearly two weeks was brilliant. I now know how to make homemade pesto of both varieties, green and red, peanut butter, a mean frittata, granola, and some seriously bad ass chocolate chip cookies.
Think my personal highlight of working with the Chef was on Christmas Day. I’d entered the kitchen to try to offer some help cleaning dishes. I caught him in a kind of ballet pose with his arm deep in the sink fishing out all the clog whilst massaging his shoulder with the extended tap. He seemed to be enjoying himself. We both laughed a lot.
I admire this guys patience and chilledness. This is an operation which he’ll admit is far removed from the smooth running of most kitchens in the US, his Spanish isn’t great, the girls speak no English, things go missing, things break, stock runs out, and he has an English imbecile in his office getting in the way but never once did I see him lose his cool. Top guy!
I loved his yoga too. 30 minutes every morning at 7.30 and 1 hour on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. I’d make most sessions if I wasn’t surfing.
He always closed off his yoga sessions with the wise words of, “be kind, be thoughtful and treat others the way you wish to be treated.” Nice start to the day.
There’s so many characters that are worthy of equally long words.
One of the first guys I met was Alex. Alex is a Harvard graduate in Architecture. At 27 he’s only worked 1 year in the rat race. At 27 he’d long worked out the route to his happiness and that wasn’t being sat in an office slaving away for 10 days holiday a year so he could have a big house and flash car and maybe retire when he was 50. I really respect this man because academically he is in the 0.00001% very elite of the world. He could quite literally do whatever he wanted and make an absolute fortune in doing so. The contacts he has made in academia, the knowledge he has acquired and the intellect he has empowers him to be whatever he wants. And that’s not to be someone else’s monkey.
Initially I find it strange that he’d choose to come and work designing eco friendly properties (actual real work) for the owner of Camino in return for free accommodation and lunch. In terms of financial worth his work is valued as the same as mine. We get the same deal. However, this is not what it’s about for Alex. It’s an opportunity to work on a project he is into whilst also being able to enjoy the things he loves most like being able to surf every day. Happiness over money once more.
We have some really interesting chats and Alex always offer an alternative view point on the subject matter. I really enjoy talking to him although I must admit I felt a little out of my depth sometimes!
Another volunteer arrives the following day. A Chilean dude called Diego arrives with his mate Jose. Jose works in the private surf camp next door having both previously worked at Camino a few weeks back. They’ve just returned from a visa run.
These guys have similar stories to mine. Diego, 35, a corporate finance specialist in Santiago. Jose, 33, a lawyer in Santiago. Both quit well paid jobs in the capital city to hunt down their own Endless Summer of catching waves from Chile to California. They’ve got a cool van which they cruise around in. The point that comes across is “what are all these hours of hard work really for? What are we aiming for in this system?”
I then meet Mark who also works at the private surf camp next door. Mark is 33 and from South African but has not lived there since he was 18. He’d spent most of his working life in London where he worked for 8 years as a hot shot techie guy specialising in working for start up technology companies.
He’s been travelling for four years, the last 15 months out the back of a wicked little camper van. It’s lined with red velour inside. Pretty slick vintage set of wheels.
Having bust his balls and burnt himself out working hard and partying hard in London at 28 Mark called an end to this and upped sticks. He’s not looked back.
Mark is all about living a simple life, a complete removal of self from commercialism. He’s probably the most loaded out of all of us, but he spends the least. He’s had good practice at this and roaming about in a van does allow you travel without the major accommodation costs those without wheels get hit by. His simple life means he consumes very little in the way of plastic and crap.
He does play the stock market and seems to do pretty well which I find as a kind of contradiction to his life ethos but it more than pays his way.
It’s a pleasure chatting to these guys and we have great conversations about how pickled the world is. We watch YouTube documentaries uncovering all sorts of messed up injustices whilst eating fish caught fresh by Jose that day.
It’s more than apparent on this trip that to life simply, healthily and happily is achievable with a fraction of our previous salaries and with a far less damaging impact on the environment. It’s very thought provoking being in the company of these guys.
Another new face joins the work force. His name is Sam, he’s 25 and from Spain. He’s an aspiring yogi come Buddhist. He also makes really nice leather goods. I commission him to make me a leather sleeve for my iPad. Do I really need this iPad cover? Probably not but I’m doing my bit to support this artisan.
When else in my life have I met so many characters from all over the world and from all walks of life. Harvard graduate to fugitive and everything in between, you don’t meet these people trudging to work every day.
C A M I N O H O S T E L
This place certainly has a charm about it. When I arrived I didn’t have any definitive plans on how long I was going to stay but I instantly liked the place and can certainly relate to the quote, “be careful, you may never want to leave”. It’s a cool little spot on the beautiful Gigante Bay at the southern end.
The resort is a ramshackle of random stuff. It’s essentially a corrugated iron shed with a bar and a kitchen. Even though it’s been quiet it’s got a great vibe and there are always cool people coming and going.
There’s a real community feel here too. Familiar faces come and go throughout the day. Everyone takes interest in what each other are up to and I can see why so many people come for a week and stay a year. This story appears regularly.
There’s also loads of incredible art around the hostel and surrounding area as well. This is all done by the artist Yader Gutierrez who is a local to Gigante Bay. I really like the colour and detail of his work. Here’s a little selection of my favourite bits from him I found in the Bay.
All the guys enjoy surfing, Sam more body board, and we share some fun surfs on Amarillo.
One of my favourite surfs didn’t actually involve much surfing. Diego, Jose, Mark and I paddled out to Colorado which I’d been told was a world class beach break. As soon as I made it onto the beach this thing was thundering in, barrel and after barrel and massive. I’ve been in the water with some big waves in Samatra but this felt like a whole different ball game all together! Off the chart big and I don’t even think this was close to peak conditions. The swell report had picked up in previous days but it was by no means close to reaching its peak. Frightening how big this could get.
After a little bit of persuasion I paddled out with the guys and sat just on the outside, still very conscious a big set could come through and smash me to bits. I was never going to go for any waves, they scared the shit out of me, but it was ace to be positioned in the perfect spot to see directly into the wave when someone was entering and riding inside the barrel. I wish I had a camera to record what I saw. However, a camera would never pick up the energy out there in the line up. I could feel the excitement and tension as Surfers from all over the world got into position and took wave after wave. It’s my most fun surf of my life and I didn’t even catch a wave!
“W O R K”
Other than working in the kitchen making the volunteers lunch mainly other jobs included working as a deck hand on the weekly booze cruise. Serving drinks and chatting to guests was certainly one of my better gigs. The route south toward Costa Rica is spectacular with several spots to cliff jump and a giant cave where the wave sucks you into and swirls you around in a whirlpool motion. I opt to man the boat when the guests go for this.
One day I was asked to help with abseiling which the hostel runs off a near by ledge called Giants Foot. It’s an incredible spot with view all the way south down the coast to Costa Rica and north back towards El Salvador. See below.
Arsenal were playing Man City away that day and one of the near by bars had NBC and were showing it. I agreed with Sam that there wasn’t much point us both being at the top of Giants Foot. There were three groups of thirty people spread out across the day so it didn’t really need two people pulling the rope up each time. I was to come back after lunch and take the final group up. This worked perfectly around football.
We lost, we were terrible and I sloped off back to the hostel to find out some local dude had had a major accident and slipped off the top of the ledge and had some bad injuries. I instantly felt guilty that if I was there I could have helped in some way. Of all the days for someone to have an accident.
Strangely the next 25 people were all keen to continue with their descents. I for one had no interest in doing this whatsoever, especially after seeing the new rope fraying in many places. Extreme activities in third world countries are starting to not sit well with me.
The lad ended up in hospital with a broken ankle and some internal bleeding!
My surfing is ropey at best. I’m just happy to get up and ride the wave straight down, it’s rare I get a solid turn across the wave in. So I was a little surprised to be asked to take a surf lesson. It was with a group of beginners out in the white water so it was pretty straight forward and really enjoyable.
C H R I S T M A S D A Y
Well this was an alternative Xmas day and one that is unlikely to be repeated again.
I’d hoped that we were going to be given a free ride on Xmas day but this didn’t materialise. I was asked to help clean the garden of one of the other properties. Not too taxing and spent outdoors in the sun so as jobs go it wasn’t too bad.
First I cooked some breakfast pancakes (American style) for the guys at the surf camp next door. Their kitchen was way nicer than ours and there were no guests so it was easier and better to cook there. We’d been doing it for several nights before. We had the lot going on. Banana, chocolate chip, peanut butter and Nutella pancakes. Plain pancakes with pineapple, banana and papaya fruit with cinnamon and maple syrup. The options with this medley of ingredients were endless. Think I ate close to 10 with my dream combo being plain with salt, banana and maple syrup.
The electricity went at about 10am and consequently the pump for the water well was out of action so there was no water to clean the dishes and the mess I’d made in the kitchen. Jose had no work today and went and slept in the hammock outside the camp. We all went off to get our four hours done.
I returned at about mid day to ask Mark something. He wasn’t there but Jose was. The house had been flooded. The taps had been left open and when the electricity came back on and with the sink being blocked full of left over food and pots and pans it flooded the house. Jose was asleep so wouldn’t have known it was happening until he woke to find the carnage.
He’d been mopping away frantically for the last hour. I joined in in a desperate attempt to get the place dried out as quickly as possible.
After a sweaty couple of hours we had the place looking good as new and smelling funky fresh like a deep clean had been performed throughout.
After that debacle it was time to enjoy a few beers, my first in five months, and the rest of Xmas. I walked up to Giants Foot to watch sunset which was one of the most spectacular I’d seen. Sadly my iPhone has given up on me and it’s not been captured but the sun sets from here are incredible. The vastness of the Pacific Ocean with the sun dropping into the ocean is an incredible sight. As too are the numerous birds of pray flying closely overhead. I find them fascinating.
Here’s a sunset off the top earlier in my stay.
I’d found myself dipping in and out of the kitchen helping the girls wash dishes and try to assist with the absolute mayhem that was unfolding in there.
With New Year a week away it would have been very easy to stay here and enjoy the parties that would undoubtedly follow but was I falling into the trap? Consequently I made the decision to leave a few days after Xmas.
For the first time in this trip I feel like there is a lot more of this country that needs to be seen, volcanoes to summit, secret surfs spots to explore and lakes to hang out at. Ometepe for example has been completely bypassed as I look to reach South America as quickly as possible. Maybe a surf adventure in my own van one day will allow me to see all these incredible spots I’ve passed at this time round.
I have lots I want to see and do and that only involves scratching the surface of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and having not spoken much Spanish in three weeks it felt like time to roll on to pastures new and get into South America and start a completely different Latin American experience. Time to get my salsa moves on!