It’s been sixteen months since we landed in Houston after spending nine and a half months in Latin America. Our little chihuahua growled at us when we got into my parents’ car still wearing our hats from Nicaragua. It took him a while to warm up to us. Our intention was to get this post out right away. Well, American life happened. We visited Kate’s family in Northern California for three months then spent time with my family in Nashville and Houston. We have been back in Central Texas since the fall of 2015, working on projects we had planned while traveling and swimming daily in the cold springs that make this region so special.
Río San Juan
Our twelve day adventure from metropolitan Lima, Peru in May of 2015 landed us at a small finca on the Río San Juan in Nicaragua. We slept in a quaint cabin where bats visited us nightly. The afternoon we arrived, we met the owner, an excited jubilant Nicaraguan fluent in English. He was anxious to help us with our plans and to arrange a tour of the Indio Maíz reserve. He told us he would return later with more information about guides in the area. We never saw him again.
No matter, we enjoyed our days on the farm, milking cows, picking cacao, and making chocolate bars with the goods we harvested. We spent nights observing many caimans in a lagoon on the property. We walked in the sweltering jungle heat two hours to Sábalo one afternoon in order to find a cell phone signal so we could call my father on his birthday. Once there, we paid $.10 to take a paddle boat across a small river to get to the center of town.
The next day we had our first Nicaraguan hitch-hiking experience. A cheerful couple driving a new Hilux picked us up on our walk to Sábalo to catch a boat to El Castillo. They were from Managua and owned a rice farm in the area. Kate walked with them through the small village to find a snack to eat. We waited with them for their boat and said very friendly goodbyes. Our boat left later.
In El Castillo, we found a clean and comfortable hotel room. We debated which guide to book for a tour of Indio Maíz and finally decided to pair up with two young Swiss Germans we had met at the finca and do a group tour leaving at 5am the next morning. The reserve was quiet, peaceful and magical. We saw both old growth and new growth forest, tropical birds, poinsonous frogs, unusual mammals and trees full of monkeys. After our tour, our guide, Wilmer, took us to his father’s farm to eat fresh coconuts. Upon arriving, we saw fourteen bats lined up on a tree.
We visited the fort erected by the Spanish to stop pirates from sacking Granada when we returned to town. We decided to make our way back to San Carlos that afternoon. As we boarded the boat, the hand offered to put our backpacks on the roof. We wouldn’t let him. We kept them inside instead. About half-way to San Carlos, the same man, who was sitting on the roof of the boat, craned his head and arms inside the boat and looked at us as he moved his arms up and down clapping them together. We were confused at first, but then began to recognize the universal sign for crocodile. We could not get our cameras out in time to catch the enormous crocodile taking a sunbath on a small island in the middle of the river. It started to pour profusely shortly after that. All the bags on the roof of the boat were thoroughly drenched.
We had become accustomed to not knowing where we would sleep next. From El Castillo, we thought we would go to some remote islands in Lake Nicaragua but before getting to the port in San Carlos to change boats, we decided to board a bus north to Matagalpa instead. A few hours later, we decided to change destinations again.
We got off in San Francisco, a sleepy town, in hopes to catch a bus to Camoapa. A lady closing her shop for the night said that the last bus had already passed. We had faith and hitchhiked. We nearly got a ride from a large dump truck with six young men but when we were told Kate would ride in the front and I up top, we decided that wouldn’t work for us. We had faith that a safer alternative would arrive.
Just two minutes later a Land Cruiser truck appeared and stopped for us. A rancher got out and asked us in Spanish where we were headed. He said that his wife told him that we looked liked good people and we could use their help. We hopped in the bed of their truck and laid down to watch the big night sky pass over us. It was perfect weather and we cruised through beautiful moonlit rolling landscapes.
When we arrived in town, the rancher and his wife were surprised that we knew no one there, so they took it upon themselves to host us. They invited us to their home where we met their young children and other family members. The man showed me videos of his Friesian horses. The woman insisted on making Kate a list of places to visit. We were given locally made hats. Then, they gave us a tour of the town where they seemed to know everyone and everyone seemed to know them. When they dropped us off at a hotel, they even offered to call our families to let them know where we were. They were incredibly sweet and just perhaps may have been angels. We turned on the TV after getting settled in and synchronistically saw this music video.
Camoapa is way off the beaten path. We didn’t see any tourism there, but we did meet two American graduate students volunteering for several months with an NGO that helps with water quality. We were told about a natural swimming pool “Selva de Mombach”, located near the top of a peak outside of town. We began walking there. Shortly after exiting the town, we were picked up by a family and rode in the back of their truck. They took us to the top of a hill where a small church sits. A nun exited the vehicle and invited us into the church before we continued on our visit to the pool.
From the church, we hiked quite a bit more getting lost at one point and wandering down a road in such poor condition that there was no possible way a normal car could make it through there. We saw a small shack in the distance so we kept walking. I stopped in front and called to see if anyone was home. A little old lady peaked her head out of the dirt floored structure with holes in the walls large enough for roosters to enter and exit. We asked if the swimming pool was nearby. She only nodded her head and shooed us away. Walking back up the destroyed path, we couldn’t figure out how this woman was surviving all the way out there. It was very remote, just a wood shack with a fire burning out back.
We passed many cows along the trail. Camoapa is the primary cattle ranching region of Nicaragua. Finally, we rerouted back to another trail and saw several small children herding some dogs. We asked them where the pool was. One of the young girls kind of shrugged her shoulders at first then finally pointed up ahead after some coaxing. We wandered some more, thinking for sure we were on another wild goose chase, when up ahead we saw what appeared to be a ranch house. Getting closer, we saw two beautiful blue pools surrounded by a bath house and rec room. The most famous mountain peak in the area towered above the setting.
No one was in sight. It looked abandoned but in perfect shape. Down below the pool area, I peered upon a man in full cowboy attire wielding a sharp machete, cutting weeds. He paused and came up to take our money without a smile. He brought us two plastic chairs. For a while he stood back and watched as we pulled out our sun-protective shirts, swim goggles and caps. We must have looked strange to him. We swam some laps, enjoying the empty pool all to ourselves. The surrounding scenery was stunning. It reminded me of Texas, while Kate said it reminded her of Mendocino.
The next day we arrived in Matagalpa, but not after a long bus ride where we got some bad advice and ended up riding for six hours when it should have been three and a half. Our first experience with the breezy, open-air, recycled school bus mode of transportation was fun.
Matagalpa has excellent Mexican-Nicaraguan food. I enjoyed nacatamals, a treat I discovered in Austin at the farmer’s market. For breakfast, we both ate fresh white cheese and fresh hand-made corn tortillas cooked over wood coals.
We wanted to do some shopping as we were getting ready to end our trip and head back to the states. Kate found a small village called El Chile, where you could get local artisanal goods. We were on our way to the bus station when we asked directions from a woman driving a minivan. She said she was going near the station and told us to hop on in. We climbed in only to discover it full of children. This was apparently a school bus, which ironically was not one of the yellow or painted school buses we had seen all over Nicaragua that serve as public transportation. We found out that El Chile didn’t exist or was far away or both.
One afternoon, we walked to the chocolate factory, El Castillo del Cacao, with hopes to tour their operations, but they were closed in honor of Mother’s Day. Luckily, the office was open. After purchasing our large box of chocolate, a nice couple pulled over and asked us if we needed help. We told them where we were going and they offered to take us to the bus station. It was a long ride. I was surprised by their generosity. They dropped us at the bus terminal in the nick of time.
Kate was hauled up into a school bus jam-packed with people. We stood guarding our belongings for the half hour or so ride to La Selva Negra, a historic resort in the small mountains above Matagalpa. We exited the bus and hitched yet another ride in the bed of a pickup truck a few miles down the dirt road to the park entrance. The entry fee gave us day access to the resort as well as credit in the restaurant. We spent our dining credit on large hunks of locally made manchego cheese and batidos. We took a hiking map and meandered our way through the high jungle terrain. The paths were quite steep. We saw some of the strange mammals we saw in Indio Maíz and heard howler monkeys in the trees above us. The climate was cool and the views of Matagalpa and surrounding terrain were beautiful.
San Rafael del Norte
From La Selva Negra, we made our way to San Rafael, the highest town in Nicaragua. My first real estate client, Mariel Stotts, was working there as a member of the Peace Corps. We arrived at night and stayed in the only hotel in town. We spent our days wandering around with Mariel, hearing stories about the area and getting to see some of the ovens she had helped build for numerous local families. We visited both of the churches in the town, one of which, had a never-ending stair case leading up to it. Odorico D’Andrea, a priest who helped revitalize the town is buried in this particular church. There is talk that he could be sainted. After a few days visiting with Mariel, we said our goodbyes and left for the more touristy parts of Nicaragua.
I found the bus ride from San Rafael to Estelí absolutely infuriating. There were so many people on that bus that the walls were bowing out. Some man thought it was acceptable to rest his full body weight on my shoulder. I banged my head on the top of the back door as we exited that sardine can. I have only experienced a ride similar to that on a bus in Calcutta. I can resolutely say that the ride in Calcutta, a city which surely has more people than all of Nicaragua, was more pleasant.
We stopped in Estelí for a few hours and went to a small cigar factory where we purchased cigars as gifts. We decided to move on to León because we would be going home in a week or so.
We spent less than 24 hours in León. It was hottest place we had visited in all of Latin America. It was so miserable that Kate had to lay under a drenched towel in order to sleep through the night. We heard of people sand-boarding down the volcanoes nearby but the idea of hiking hours in the shadeless blistering heat to enjoy a minute of downhill thrills didn’t entice us. We spent time in an interesting art museum and took pleasure in our usual habits of exploring cities on foot while eating sliced green mango that is commonly sold on street corners.
Granada was the last stop of our trip. It is probably one of the most touristic sites we visited. We stayed in a really nice hotel, owned by a couple that had lived for decades in the San Francisco Bay Area. They left Nicaragua in the 1980s for political reasons. They returned when it was safe for them. Again, we endured the heat by sleeping under wet towels at night but it wasn’t grueling like León. We refused to pay extra for air conditioning. We had yet to do that. Fortunately, the hotel was new, beautiful and luxurious.
We spent time venturing to little towns near Granada looking for gifts for family but nothing really excited us. Our hotel actually sold the best items we could have found, organic coffee and vanilla, hand-made baskets and painted animals carved in balsa. One day, we ventured to a scenic overlook. On the last day of our travels, we went swimming in a volcanic lake.
We learned from our experience in Nicaragua that if you like where you are, stay there. What we liked most about Nicaragua was the Río San Juan, Camoapa and the Coffee Region. We cut short our time in the jungle because we tried to manage the seventeen or so days we had left to explore the highlights of Nicaragua before going home. You can’t see everything so if you like where you are, slow down and take it in.
We learned much from all of our travels and have written a rough draft of a book detailing ideas we think will be helpful to others interested in making a similar endeavor. Don’t hold your breath because our American lives are back in full swing but there will be a book sooner or later.