A Nicaragua for All Senses: A Trip Report

Old Sep 20th, 2006, 09:59 AM
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A Nicaragua for All Senses: A Trip Report

I am posting this trip report congruently on Lonely Planet as well. The report comes from a collection of blog posts I did while on vacation. I have cleaned them up, and put them into a large narrative about our trip. Earlier this week, I started with my take on Little Corn Island. I also have posted pictures from our trip on my personal site if anyone is interested.
-travelbear

A Nicaragua for All Senses

Granada, Nicaragua has had many descriptive terms attached to it over the years. The Spaniards that established the city in 1524 referred to this city as “The Great Sultan” in reference to the heritage of its namesake in Spain. Nicaraguans have seen the city as the seat of conservative power in the country, the anti-Leon if you will. Guidebooks all refer to Granada as a colonial city not to be missed. But all of those observations seemed to miss a crucial element of this city. While it is a viscerally pleasing city, with a history as old as the conquest of Central America and a heritage as a Nicaraguan seat of power, Granada today transcends all of the previous conceptions. At first, an accurate description evaded me, until my wife LaNita and I were strolling along the shores of Lago de Nicaragua. There, as families played in the park and street vendors did a brisk business in cashews and ice cream, LaNita sagely observed, “This place sounds like it is always having a party.”

That simple statement of the obvious is what previous descriptions are missing. While Granada is indeed a pretty place to see, it is in the sounds that is comes alive. Every shop, every store front, and surely ever chicken bus, sounds like it headed off to the fiesta of the year, all blaring the repetitive beat that is indicative of Central American popular music. These people definitely know how to have a good time, which is great given that we are definitely in the mood for celebration having conquered one hurdle thus far. Having just arrived the day before, on our first full day we decided to tackle Volcano Masaya, which lies just north of Granada on the way to Managua. For those learned about Nicaragua, there may be some question as to what I mean about “tackling” Masaya, after all the volcano is extremely tame when you drive up to the summit, peer into the crater, snap a few photos and then drive back.

But that is not how we go about volcanoes, and having summited Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala last year, we felt as though we owed it to our adventure travel heritage to again walk up the face of a volcano, road or no road. Even though Masaya is a far cry from Pacaya the previous year, it was a great experience to be back on the trail working up a sweat as we sought out the crest. Four miles up, and four miles back, we were undeterred by the heat and humidity and we both saw it as a good warm up for more challenging hikes planned ahead. Plus, as is often the experience with strenuous hikes, the reward at the top far outweighs any perceived pain at the bottom. Masaya was no exception. The smoldering crater offered a wonderful eruption for all of the senses: the feel of the heat rising up from below, the smell of the sulfur gas rushing through our noses, the cacophony of sound made by the amalgamation of rushing winds above and bubbling magma below, the sight of brightly colored parakeets that are somehow immune to the noxious fumes the crater spews and the taste of the gases and sweat in our parched mouths as we gasped for breath at the top.

After a suitable rest and water break, we decided to continue along the path that went above the active crater to the extinct crater above and around to the vista of the Lago de Masaya below. The day was clear and the view was spectacular. If this was only a prelude of what Nicaragua had to offer, LaNita and I were indeed in for a holiday for the ages.

Sweaty, tired and pleased with a full morning of activity, we took off for Laguna de Apoyo. This lake, just south of Masaya, fills in a long extinct volcanic crater and contains the bluest water one is likely to see anywhere. The water also has a certain quality about it that makes it feel like you are swimming in a lukewarm bath filled with water softened water. A quick dip in the magical waters was the perfect elixir for what ales our aching muscles.

Tired, yet relaxed, satisfied with our first full day of Nicaragua, we headed back to our colonial jewel of a hotel, La Gran Francia. This architectural marvel sits on the southeastern corner of Granada’s Parque Central and is definitely hard to miss as it is said to be the only remaining building standing that retains the architectural style of old Granada. Admittedly, the hotel will run wide of some budgets at $100/night, but for my wife and me; it was the epitome of “backpacking bourgeois.” The phrase was coined as LaNita and I downed ice cold Victorias from the community icebox at the infamous Granada hostel The Bearded Monkey. It was in the confines of this hostel that we would have the most fun, drinking down beers and swapping stories from the road with our fellow travelers. Here we were amongst friends and comrades-in-arms in the quest to fight the encroachment of mass tourism development in this unspoiled paradise. Our travel ethos were definitely aligned when it came to supporting local communities, being conscience of our environmental impact and leaving Nicaragua even better than how we found it. But while we shared many of the same experiences and ideals, we were not prepared to share the same bed bugs, so we sought out hotels that have a bit more to offer than the local hostel. Thus, while we will eat from the street vendor and are not afraid to climb on a chicken bus to get around, we also like to have a comfy, quiet bed and the occasional nice meal out. This stratum of travel seems to be the next logical progression up the scale, as we have previously done shoestring travel and have enjoyed the familiarity an intimacy we developed with such trips. At the same time, we don’t consider ourselves to be in any level of “travel elite,” whereby we look to exclude the local experience by paying our way out of discomfort. During this year’s vacation incarnation, I am proud to report we have honed the art of “backpacking chic.”

As The Bearded Monkey shut down for the evening, we stumbled across Granada back to our hotel. Legs aching, heads swimming and hearts content, we were ready to bed down for the night. Ahead of us lies two days of adventure on nature’s amusement park that is Mount Mombacho.
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Old Sep 20th, 2006, 10:00 AM
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Meeting Mombacho

The first thing that ran through my mind as I got suited up for our canopy tour was a line from the movie True Lies. The line was said by Tom Arnold’s character to Eliza Dushku who was suiting up to take off on her boyfriend’s motorcycle. Indeed, her appearance led the audience to believe she was about to embark on some daredevil task rather than a simple ride to school.

“I remember the first time I was shot out of a cannon.”

The quote was apropos to today’s activities, which began with a bone-crunching 45 minute four-wheel drive ride up the eastern face of Mount Mombacho, and became wholly appropriate as my Mombotour guide put the helmet on my head as the finishing touches to the ensemble LaNita and I were now wearing. Decked out with repel clips, harnesses, gloves and the aforementioned helmet, we definitely looked dressed for something cool. How cool would become quickly apparent dangling high above the coffee plantation below, the howler monkeys low rumble of a growl going on all around us accompanied the a symphony of sound only a rain forest could provide as we prepared from our first ride on the zip line. For the next hour, we would hop scotch our way through the trees, from one platform to the next, seeing the widest variety of plant and animal life that can be found anywhere on Earth. This last statement is not meant to sound like hyperbole, 7% of the world’s biodiversity is found in Nicaragua.

After our exhilarating morning, made all the more so by the 60 foot repel at the end of the canopy tour, we made our way back into Granada for lunch and to get ready for the tour in the afternoon. Being here only three days thus far, we could see how small a town Granada is, filled with many of the same faces and people day in and day out. In only our short time here, we have already taken to the casual holas one usually reserves for long-time acquaintances. Beautiful architecture, pleasantly warm climate, nature’s playground surrounding you; I can see how travelers arrive here and then simply never leave. Throughout Granada, expatriates have jammed their flag into the adobe, opening up bars, restaurants, hostels and hotels all over the city. During our time wandering the cobblestoned streets, we met a number of proprietors who see Nicaragua as a place to start life over: the ex-mechanic from Boston that runs Los Idols, the couple from Dallas trying their luck with Euro Café, the Coloradoan bartender at The Bearded Monkey who is elbow deep into opening a bilingual philosophy school, the Canadian woman who doles out plentiful helpings of friendly advice at Dominick’s to name a few.

Our bellies full, but our minds still craving stimulation, later in the afternoon we were headed up Mombacho once again, this time on the western side to do a short rainforest hike. It was truly amazing, to be 1200 meters above the countryside below seeing some much flora and fauna. As if our senses were not in overload enough, our short saunter culminated at a vista that is to date, the most beautiful view we have ever had from a mountaintop. There below us was Lago de Nicaragua and the 365 small islands that make up its northern reaches, then the town of Granada, followed by the crater lake, Laguna de Apoyo. Beyond that was the smoldering volcano of Masaya, half a dozen other volcanic peaks and then in the distance Lago de Managua and the capital city on its southern side. The view was breathtaking and worth a few moments contemplation.

Photos snapped, oohing and aahing finished and feeling a general sense of euphoria, we began the descent down from the overlook when we passed a sign that I thought was surely more myth than fact: “Do Not Enter the Puma Trail Without A Guide.”

Before us stood the gate to the infamous Puma Trail.

The very name of this path conjures hushed tones and reverent references as the route is held in the highest regards amongst the local guides. Even the mention of one’s intent to do the famed hike is met with disbelief and suggestions for alternative, easier treks. Guides here do not take such threats loosely and it is almost as though travelers are expected to prove their worth through the relentless pursuit of the quest.

LaNita and I would not be easily deterred, or for that matter deterred at all, from the moment we first heard about the hike through the cloud rainforest atop the dominant volcano. We had come to Nicaragua looking for adventure, and adventure we would have. While climbing up to the summit of Volcano Masaya, our guide had told us about Puma when we asked for strenuous hikes around the Granada area, yet when we asked about his services for the trek, we were met with a wave of excuses: the trail was closed for maintenance, during the rainy season it is impassable, the local guides are not allowing people to do the trail, etc.

This was a similar story we heard from the guides running Mombotours. When we asked about doing Puma, they told us similar tales of the way being closed, save for one day a week when tourists were allowed to do the trek. So we had almost resigned ourselves to missing the trail on this trip. At least it would give us a reason to come back through Granada at some point in the not too distant future we reasoned.

But here, at the culmination of our far from excruciating nature walk we could see plainly that the path was not closed, in fact the trail looked very well maintained and, winding through the dense vegetation of this cloud rainforest, something we would want to explore.

The whole way back to the base of the Mombacho park rangers, I asked our guide about doing the Puma Trail, who we should speak with, how long it would take, how much would it cost, when would could begin, etc. I was worse than a 4 year old confined to the back seat of the family station wagon: I had questions that needed answers and would not rest until they were.

Finally, our guide gave in. Turns out he knows a guy that just might, might, be able to take us on the Puma Trail, but it only depends on what kind of shape we were in and if he was up for the task. “Done,” we said, line up the meeting and let’s talk about the trail.

That evening, we met Jay in the lobby of La Gran Francia to go over the hike. He didn’t seem too concerned about our safety, or ability to complete the hike, so I began to wonder if the sense of foreboding everyone had given to us was not just some type of elaborate ruse to keep day trippers off the trail. Indeed, the next morning we were off without so much as a moment’s hesitation despite the fact that the top of Mombacho was shrouded in cloud cover, and there is no telling what that meant for the weather on our hike.

To reach the entrance of the Puma Trail, we would have to walk approximately 1 kilometer from the ranger station through the well marked, and well tread, nature walk most tourists do. The initial part of the hike is nothing spectacular, as it the trails takes a moment to really get going, but when it does, there is little doubt in the hikers’ mind why this trail is considered so difficult. After only a few hundred meters in, trekkers are met with what can best be described as a stairway to heaven leading to the very top of Mombacho and the highest point of the Puma Trail. The steps are grueling and take quite a while to negotiate, but in the end the view from the top is invigorating. Hikers are met with a blast of fresh cool air and a patchy view of the valley below as clouds roll in, formed by the collision of the warm moist rain of the southern stretches of Central America colliding with the cool dry air infused from North America.

After the initial assault to the peak, the trail levels out, with only alternating bits of overly-exerting climbs followed by undulating hills along the top ridges of Mount Mombacho. The real treat here is the rainforest itself. One almost needs a flashlight, as sunlight is completely blocked out by the dense tropical growth. Moisture drips through the leaves, and the smell of organic matter penetrates the olfactory senses almost to the point of saturation. At times, the underbrush would part, offering views of the entire Nicaraguan countryside, everything from coffee plantations, to remnants of volcanic eruptions of old, to the Pacific along the Western horizon.

For four kilometers we treaded carefully through the rainforest, as the dense moisture ensures the well-maintained trail remains a constant slippery slope. Every turn seemed to offer more unusual and exotic plants than the last, and it seemed as though we would soon met an animal not previously know to modern science. This may not be as far-fetched as it seems. The foliage is so thick it is hard to see much past the trail itself. In fact, the trail is named for a Puma based solely on rumor. A local is said to have spotted the tracks of one of the elusive cats, no confirmed sightings have even been reported on Mombacho.

At the end, LaNita and I were exhausted but exhilarated. While the trail is not the most strenuous hike we had ever been on, it definitely took a lot of energy to complete. Satisfied that we had put forth a noble effort for the day, we went back into Granada to run some last minute errands and rest on our last night in town. Tomorrow we were to depart for the southern stretches of Nicaragua and an off-road exploration straight out of a Jim Rodgers adventure.
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Old Sep 20th, 2006, 10:01 AM
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The Back End of Nowhere

The look on his face was priceless. We had just pulled into the rental car return desk at Managua airport with our Toyota LandCruiser 4X4 completely covered in caked-on mud. If there was any doubt whose job it was to clean returned vehicles here, it was quickly answered by the jaw agape stare of the man walking slowly around our vehicle. The final verdict came once he opened the hood only to see the six-cylinder engine completely covered mud. Under his breath I heard him mutter, “O dios mio…”

Pulling into the Managua airport meant LaNita and I had just returned to civilization after a few days of true adventure. For some reason, we thought the Nicaragua we had seen in the immediate environs of Granada was too tame, and wanted to see the wild side of this Central American country. After spotting the Toyota LandCruiser 4X4 for rent at the hotel—referred as the Prado—we had our answer.

The plan was a simple one. Rent the beast of a vehicle and let no one tell us where we could and couldn’t go. After all, what we had seen on the trails and through the national parks was already enough to have us planning a return trip, so what lies beyond where the pavement ends?

We would soon enough find out, but we first had to endure an adventure of another sort: the bribe. It is a well know fact that the police here expect gringos to just pay their way out of trouble. Duly warning us was the couple at Euro Café when we first told them of our intentions after leaving Granada. What I first interrupted this to mean was that should I do anything wrong, then I would have to pay the fine on the spot. No problem just don’t do anything wrong.

Apparently being a white guy with a rental car is a crime in this country and one that will not go unpunished by the local law enforcement. On the Pan American highway heading south from Granada to San Juan del Sur, LaNita and I were pulled over at a roadside checkpoint. The cop, noticing my lack of Spanish skills, explained to me I had committed an “infraction.” Turns out, when passing other vehicles in Nicaragua, you have to use your blinker, honk your horn and flash your lights. I only wish I was making all of this up.

As the cop pointed out to me, I had apparently failed to flash my lights when passing my fellow drivers. A couple things to keep in mind so everyone can see why I had a very hard time maintaining a straight-face as he was telling me this. First, defensive driving is not taught in Nicaragua, drivers here are offensive. Second, there is no more reckless disregard for human life than seeing a man carry his two-year old in front of him on the motorcycle. Finally, where we happened to be pulled over was a stationary roadblock, they had not seen me pass anyone, so I knew I was in the right and certainly was not going to pay the $25 he wanted (point of reference, lunch costs you less than $5). As ridiculous as this all sounded to me, rather than loose my cool, I knew I had to play by the rules. I start getting upset and calling his mother a snowblower, and well it is off to the slammer for me, and this is not the kind of adventure we were seeking.

So I began my roadside defense with complete and total resignation to the fact that I was not getting out of this one without paying. I told Senor Deputy that I would need for him to write me a ticket before I pay his fine. Then, once the fine for the “infraction” is paid, I’ll need a receipt. See, herein lies the rub for the constable. The fine for my alleged “infraction” was not legitimate; it was only going straight into his pocket. He couldn’t have it on the record if he were to get his graft. Thus, he was not keen on giving me a ticket, and we ended having a 20 minute discussion about my “infraction.” At various times during this all-to-joyous discussion, the officer told me he was going to keep my license, and then that I couldn’t drive for 24 hours with an “infraction”, or that I was going to need to go to El Banco so that I could pay my fine and then all of a sudden the fine for my “infraction” went up to $45. It was getting worse before it was getting better. Undeterred though, I held firm. No ticket, no fine.

Then a moment of opportunity presented itself and I took advantage of. What I have not told you already is that we were not the only gringos pulled over on that lonely stretch of Central American highway. Immediately ahead of us was another two guys driving the exact same kind of vehicle we were in. After they were pulled over (they pulled us over together) one guy from the other vehicle came over to me to ask if I spoke Spanish and ask what they wanted. Our conversation was brief, seeing as how the policia national made sure we didn’t compare notes, but it was effective. For at the tail end of my conversation with the police, I started to ask what those two guys had been pulled over for (they just paid the fine and went on their way). At the mere mention of the other two gringos, the officer asked if we were traveling together. “Of course,” was my lightning fast response. Immediately, the officer handed me back my license, and told me to be on my way. Believing he had already fleeced this group out of beer money, he let us go on our way.

The tone was thus set for adventure, and we continued driving to San Juan del Sur. Arriving in this seaside village, we were lucky enough to happen upon the other two gringo “infractions” sitting in a bar, and had a wonderful chat about the experience. While they thought it was funny that I had convinced the law we were traveling together and managed to talk my way out of the otherwise very sticky situation, they were also very concerned about my cavalier attitude in a place like Nicaragua. “Eric, sometimes you just have to pay the fine. You don’t know what these people are capable of,” the drunker of the two told me. Sage advice indeed and taken under advisement for any potential encounters with the cops. But for the moment, the anxiety wearing off and the thrill of victory setting in, I was ready to be on my way. Having evaded the cops on the Pan American highway and finding our way to the southern stretches of Nicaragua, LaNita and I were ready for the thrill of adventure that lays before us on the dirt covered back roads of Nicaragua. Sure, when we rented to vehicle in Granada it may have been clean, but after a few kilometers of bouncing around barely maintained dirt roads, we knew the LandCruiser would be anything but by the time we had to return the 4X4 a few days later.

The idea of driving without a map and without much ability to speak Spanish in a country like Nicaragua is not one many people would arrive too lightly, if at all. But for us, this was the culmination of our years of travel experience. We new some of the best experiences lay on the road less traveled. The only difference between the road here and some other places is that it requires a real sense of discovery with little worry for the potential hazards.

Now properly regrouped in San Juan del Sur and armed with the limited knowledge the road maps of the Nicaragua provide the intrepid traveler, I found the turn off that headed south outside of town and took my chance that at the other end of that irregular, rough, potholed road was a beach so perfect it would be make the entire spin squishing ride worth it. During the first part of our trip we had heard of just such a road, and immediately we had visions of Y Tu Mama Tambien, the Mexican film from a few years ago in which to oversexed teenagers take off in the car down the Pacific coast on the hunch that the most beautiful beach in the world could be found. The difference between our quest and theirs was that while their ultimate goal was to find the beach in an attempt to seduce an older woman, we were only searching for the beach. If there were any older women to be seduced once we got there, consider it a happy accident.

The searching would take us through a perfect juxtaposition of what Nicaragua was and what it promises to be. Along the dirt track—as road just does not seem a fitting description of what we were driving on—we would come upon villages that still existed on farming and a very simply way of life. These were some of the poorest people in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (only Haiti ranks lower). Yet at the same time, towering above these villages were the signs of what is coming to this stretch of Nicaragua: wealthy investors. While there may have been little more than a pig trail leading up to these new developments, all through the hills we saw new sub-divisions going up and new condos being planned. Make no mistake about it, this influx of dollars has not been lost on the locals, with some enterprising individuals proudly spray painting Se Vende on the side of their tin roof dwellings. For those that may be worried about what the new development will do to this previously unspoiled piece of property, we were assured that change would not happen overnight; construction takes a long time in Nicaragua.

The first stop on our new road to discovery was the beach known as Playa Yankee. The turnoff was marked by signs pointing the way to new developments, of which the empty lots evidence there will be lots of. With the four-wheel drive engaged, we winded our way down the gravel paths until we reached the sands and the surf. What waited for us at the bottom was what we had come to look for: miles of undeveloped beachfront without a soul to share it with. As far as we could see, we were the only ones on this beach, and what a beach it was. Surrounded by rock cliffs, the Pacific waters broke in perfect wave curls. The entire expanse was a postcard straight out of the California coast, if the photographer could be lucky enough to find such a stretch without any people in the water. Yet, unlike its California cousin, this beach was different in what it was not: cold and full of litter. LaNita and I bounded in the surf with glee, splashing in the water that was almost warm to the touch that had none of the debris many of us come to expect with beach holidays.

Already, our first beach in, we knew we had found something special, something that was ours, and ours alone, so with less trepidation and greater excitement, we continued south toward the Costa Rican border to find what else lies on the road ahead. Along the way, we continued to pass signs for a development knows as El Coco, a beach we had heard was worth the trip from the couple running Euro Café. Getting there was definitely for the determined. The road became progressively worse and we continued heading south and at one point we had to cross the river. Anyone thinking of doing this trip without the aide of four-wheel drive had best light a candle at the local cathedral first.

When we finally arrived, we could why it was worth charging down the road. If Playa Yankee was nice, El Coco’s beach was spectacular. Sure, there were a couple people on this beach, but the waves were better, the cliffs were higher, the sander softer and the gentle afternoon sun sure didn’t hurt either. Sitting off the beach was a low-impact hotel and condominium compound that existed only to provide employment and income to the surrounding community. LaNita and I agreed this would make a lovely spot to stop for the night, so we signed up for a beach front room with a gorgeous West-facing view and went about spending the rest of the day frolicking in the waves, smiling to each other knowing what we had found was indeed special. So special was this spot, that we spent the rest of that evening planning the return trip, the trip in which we would bring others along that would also find great enjoyment out of just such a place. “Buy meat in town, grill out along the beach, drink Victorias and just spend the time in this untouched paradise,” we told ourselves as the plans of this return trip began to flesh themselves out. With the sun setting just off the coast, it would seem that trip cannot get here soon enough.

Having found some stretches of beach untouched and more beautiful than the last on our first day of discovery, we looked forward to more adventure as we awoke the next morning. Checking out of the hotel, we headed back into San Juan del Sur, this time to turn to the north and find the beaches that promised to be some of the best surfing beaches in the world. Immediately upon leaving town, we noticed the difference between the northern stretches when compared to their southern counterparts. While along the southern road signs of future development were little more than undeveloped lots, on the northern road, already the buildings were going up. However, the people still had not yet arrived, so we were able to enjoy beaches that again were deserted.

The problem with the northern bit was finding a place to stay. We appeared to have two options along this side of the coast; the ridiculously expensive eco-lodge catering to expensive tastes and sensibilities (Morgan’s Rock) or the surfer lodge-cum-backpacking hideaway (Margangal). The latter was booked up; save for a couple beds in the dormitory, while the former would not even let wayward travelers past the gate without a pre-arranged reservation. Undeterred, we pushed on, finding ourselves on the back road to Rivas, a junction town we had previously passed through on our original way south. At Rivas, the impromptu plan became to try our luck with Ometepe, the scenic twin volcano island rising out of Lago de Nicaragua. However, those plans were quickly dashed when we began to add up the costs of taking the rental car over on the ferry. Even though this island was described as the land time forgot, it would have to wait until another time, we simply were not prepared to spend what was needed to be spent getting ourselves, and our vehicle, there.

A bit jarred from a day spent doing more driving than beach exploring, we returned to San Juan del Sur and decided to bed down for the night at Remosa Beach, another picturesque stretch of sand to the south of town with a hotel along its shores. We had stumbled upon this development the previous day, but were deterred by the fact that the guard at the gate wanted $10/person for the privilege of seeing this beach. This afternoon would be different, however, as we would see about accommodations for the night. At first, this proved beyond the simple task of asking for reception. The guard had a very hard time of understanding exactly what we were looking for (though he did not have any trouble continuing to demand $10 each). We would soon see why.

Through persistence, we managed to negotiate our way past the 15-year old gate keeper and then found what looked liked the beach’s inn. Parking the by now unrecognizable LandCruiser, we went to see about a room for the night. But this place was different somehow. For one, there were no people. While the accommodations looked very nice, the grounds nicely landscaped and well maintained, there was an eerie deserted feeling about the place. In fact, it took some time before we found anyone, and those people were only the few innkeepers.

They showed us a room, what they said was the only room available, and said we could have it at a discount so long as we paid cash, up front. Admittedly, this seemed odd, but then again, finding a place to stay in Nicaragua is always a bit unusual. Plus, the place looked really nice, and the common area promised to be a relaxing oasis in a day that was filled with the hectic schedule that comes with driving around blindly in a country like Nicaragua. After settling up the bill, we proceeded to our room, and immediately were struck by how un-hotel like this room was. There were personal photos and effects all around the room, almost as though we were staying in someone’s guest bedroom rather than a guest house.

It did not take long to see this was in fact not a hotel, but timeshare condos. The housekeepers were only all too happy to have us stay there. No doubt, what I paid in cash for the room went straight to their pockets. All they had to do was make sure the room as cleaned up after we left, and the regular inhabitants of the condo would be none the wiser.

As strange as it was to stay in the personal condo of strangers, it did not quite measure up to the overall oddity of the community itself. Devoid of people, the grounds were surrounded by odd Tiki statues of various mythological being devoted to all ranges of human endeavors from fertility to old-age. Adding to the mix was the peculiar collection of animals around the grounds. At first, the animals all seemed normal enough, there were the scarlet macaws and parakeets in cages, but as we began to explore we saw one animal weirder than the next: the monkey in the tree, its ocelot neighbor and finally an as of yet, undetermined species of mammal that can best be described as the cross between a possum and a cat. Trying to determine what this thing was called, all we could get out of the zookeeper was that it was a “Daisy.” Unfortunately, a Wikipedia search for a “Daisy” does not turn up a photo of this little creature. In aggregate, the experience led me to believe I was staying in a place that was itself a hybrid cross of the Island of Doctor Moreau and the Hotel California.

Waking the next morning, after a terrible night’s sleep, due mostly to the fact that some weird animal was making eerie noises directly outside our window, LaNita and I decided it was time to bid adieu to the Pacific side of Nicaragua and make our way over the Caribbean coast. Returning the key to someone else’s condo, we packed up the LandCruiser and proceeded back up the Pan American highway to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. There, the plan was to catch a flight to the Corn Islands for the remainder of our vacation.

Yet, as had been the theme of our vacation thus far, nothing would go to plan. All along the highway I came across outposts of the national police. At each checkpoint, I knew it would be a matter of time before I was pulled over, committing the ultimate offense of DWG—driving while gringo. Luckily, each checkpoint passed without incident until we finally made it to Managua.

But if I thought I was home free upon reaching the capital, I was to be sadly mistaken. While Managua may be the largest city in Nicaragua, it is perhaps also the most unorganized and unsophisticated. Coming into town on the only major highway in the entire country, we could not find a sign of any sort pointing to the airport. Not only were obvious airport signs missing, but so were signs of any sort marking streets, landmarks, intersections, anything. Given the fact that maps in Nicaragua are at best a suggestion, this proved to be a real problem for us as we attempted to return our vehicle and catch the last plane of the day out of the god-forsaken collection of barrios that is Managua. Having to admit defeat after an hour of driving around aimlessly, LaNita and I finally stopped at the local gas station to ask for directions. While this got us headed in the right direction, it did not get us to the airport. Rather it got us to a place only slight less chaotic than a Bangkok red-light district during Fleet Week. Only after asking directions yet again, were we able to find the correct street and eventual the fabled airport, albeit too late to catch our plane.

And it is at this point that the story circles back to where we begun. Having bounced around dirt roads for the past three days in a country that has a definite rainy season, which incidentally we were in the middle of, our rental car looked like the third place finisher of a trans-Nicaraguan rally race. There was not a square inch of the car that did not bear evidence to the adventure we had had. Any confirmation I needed as to the extent of the disaster was found in the disbelief of the rental car return agents. The looks on their faces, the hushed discussions about us, told me we would go down in the history books for our efforts. Rental car agents would pass the story down from generation to generation of the gringos that lost their way in Nicaragua and returned alive to tell the tale. No matter to us though, signing the last agreements and confirming that I would not be charged for any of the clean up, LaNita and I found a room for the night at the close-to-the-airport Camino Real. This hotel had everything we were looking for, proximity to the airport, distance from Managua, other hotel guests confirming we would not be involved in weird genetic experiments and best of all freedom from creepy sub-tropical nocturnal noises. The car turned in, accommodations for the night arranged, we were finally able to relax and look forward to what lie ahead; the hidden, untouched Caribbean islands known as Islas de Maize, or the Corn Islands.
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Old Sep 20th, 2006, 10:01 AM
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Little Corn Island

“We were meeting Bing Crosby and his wife at Farm Peace and Love for dinner,” said the Canadian-American dive instruction couple.

Anywhere else in the world, the above statement would at best read as little more than nonsense, at worst the rantings of a drugged out lunatic. But then again, Little Corn Island is not anywhere else in the world, and after only two nights there ourselves the statement made perfect sense.

It is not hard to see why on an island that is little more than palm trees, lobster traps and turquoise blue waters situated about 60 miles off the east coast of Nicaragua. To get there, one must first get to Nicaragua, a navigation feat worthy of an entire report itself. Once to Nicaragua, a twin engine prop plane is the only chariot available for the hour long journey to Big Corn Island. At the big island, terrestrial taxis are waiting to take the traveler to the terminal for their aquatic brethren. Half an hour later across rough ocean in an dingy powered by an Yamaha outboard, and the by now air, land and sea weary travelers find themselves on the shores of Little Corn, as the diminutive island is affectionately known by the locals.

And what would one find once the arduous journey comes to an end along the sandy shores of the tucked away isle? The answer depends on the beholder. For some it is an impoverished island belonging to an impoverished Central American nation. At first glance, one notices the lack of motorized vehicles of any sort, which is a good thing since there is only one paved bit on the whole of the island and that is only a sidewalk (incidentally, the sidewalk is also the town’s main drag). This is painfully obvious when a traveler is met as the boat drops them off by two wheelbarrow wielding bellhops who are acting in the dual roles of baggage porters and taxi drivers. It would seem as though there is a lot of artistic merit taken with career titles on Little Corn.

After the bags are gathered, travelers follow the wheelbarrow guides down the sidewalk to a narrow, muddy path through a humid tropical forest, in which resides lizards, mud, and a whole lot of green stuff. Ten minutes later, the by now disoriented traveler, arrives at the chain-link fence gate and invited to ring the scuba tank-cum-door bell to be properly checked in. The deluxe cabin at this forested back-of-the-woods inn consists of four walls of clapboard, a tin roof, a cold-water shower lean-to and electricity for only a few hours in the morning and evenings.

To many, the above description sounds like a vacation nightmare, something Clark Griswold would stumble into if he and his unlucky traveling circus of a family were to win a trip through the Caribbean. This is the anti-Cancun. There are no cruise boats making a port of call at this island. If one wants McDonald’s, Starbucks, or for that matter an ATM, one had better have get their fill back on the mainland. There will never been any commercials set to Iggy Pop tunes filmed here.

And it is exactly for all those above reasons that my wife and I found a little slice of heaven tucked into a corner so far into the Caribbean, most maps of the sea don’t even bother to chart the waters that far south. Little Corn Island is the very definition of getting away from it all. Not only are there no cars and certainly nothing even faintly resembling a road, there are also no jet skis, no gargantuan hotels, no American cruise shippers and no tacky gift shops. There are only a handful of television sets around the island, all of their hideaways spots marked with the “X” of a DirectTV dish. Phone service is virtually non-existent. Some of the locals carry around cell phones, but receptions is at best poor, when it works at all. If one wanted to check the internet, there are exactly two computers on the whole island that have an umbilical cord attached to the information superhighway. Both of those computers only worked during certain times of the day. Week old copies of USA Today are fought over at breakfast. To say the locals live at a slower pace would be to imply the locals know any other pace. Visitors get sucked into the time warp, not necessarily because they want to, but only because once here, there is no other way.

What this island lacked in modern amenities it made up for in spades in the accoutrements fitting of island paradise. There were only a few hotels on the island, all of which were far from worthy of star ratings as doled out by the purveyors of fine hotels. We elected to stay at Casa Iguana, which was a 10 minute walk away from the main drag (read: the sidewalk) through the jungle, set on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean sea. While our casita (as the private cabins were called by the eco-lodge) had no hot water, no fan and certainly no air-conditioning, what we did have was a world-class view from our porch. Facing east, we were 20 feet up on the bluff overlooking water that was the color of tropical postcards. If were wanted to dip our toes in the surf, it was an easy walk down to the beach. Once there, the water was bathtub warm and nearly swimming pool clear.

But what really made Casa Iguana more home than hotel were the people; both the staff and the other guests. Being in such a remote corner of such a remote country, people have to want to get to Casa Iguana, and once they arrive they have to be willing to accept an unhurried pace of life. At first, the visitors are only the casual familiar faces we all know from stays away from home: people you know are traveling, but little else of their story is provided. Before long though, these anonymous faces are assigned names, and then hometowns and then suddenly interests. Travelers become acquaintances become friends after only a few days. The magical bounding elixir is found in the communal set up of the eco-lodge. Every night dinner is served promptly at 7 pm. If one wants to eat, one must eat at the appointed hour and everyone eats together. The food that is served is a combination of what is grown at the lodge’s organic garden or caught by the resident fisherman. Should “Captain Eco-Patrol” (as the fisherman is known locally) come up empty, then that night’s meal will be vegetarian. As the history of banquettes and feast well plays out, when people eat together, they drink together and then they share together. The stories from other travelers flow like the mojitios poured by the tea-totaling Dutch staffer. After dinner, the bounding continues, well into the night, as people take turns grabbing ice-cold Victorias from the cooler, retuning to the winded bluff overlooking the sea. On some nights travelers are treated to a lightshow as approaching thunderstorms can be seen on the horizon, while on other nights the full moon lights up the breaks of the surf on the reef off shore. All of which goes on until the Victorias run out and we are forced to drink Tona, or the accumulative effect of this nightly ritual becomes too much to bear. More often than not it is the former rather than the latter.

But if it is the nights that make Little Corn special, then it is during the daylight hours that the places become magical. One can imagine there are not many activities on the island, but the activities that are there are worth returning to again and again. For me, that activity was scuba diving. Little Corn Island is said to have the most pristine reef on the planet. This statement is not meant to be hyperbole; I am merely quoting the assessment of National Geographic circa 2003. Furthermore, given how shallow most of the dives sites are, scuba divers get to see an amazing assortment of very large sea creatures. During my five days of underwater excursions, I was treated to sights of nurse sharks, eagle rays, sting rays, and large snappers. Other divers reported seeing reef sharks and sea turtles. All of which is to say nothing of the very wide assortment of reef fish, crustaceans and other members of the Finding Nemo cast. Everyone agreed this is the place to come if one wants to see the mega beasts of the deep, without acquiring the advanced certifications necessary to reach depths of 100 feet or so usually required for such encounters. As if all of that were not enough, unlike the more visited spots on the Caribbean, this place only has two dive shops, each only taking out about 6 divers at a time on staggered dive times. That means it is only the diver, the diver’s buddy and the reef.

Terrestrial visitors are greeted with the warmness of the locals. Residents of the island come up to island visitors just to say good day, not to sell a mass produced souvenirs or to bother people for money. It is not uncommon to meet more that a few Elvis’ during one’s stay (or for that matter a Bing Crosby Downs, whose brother is named Elvis Presley Downs), as the local population has an affinity for popular music crooners. Establishment names are equally as unique, such as the Italian restaurant Farm Peace and Love, the back-packer hideaway Curly Toes or the place simply known as the Cool Spot. Away from town, which is to say a few minutes walk down the sidewalk and the sun worshipers can find their altar, as warm Caribbean sunshine basks down on deserted golden- and white-sand beaches. Perhaps, the traveler will be as lucky as we were and be treated to a few innings of the Little Corn Island World Series being played at the island’s cow pasture-cum-baseball field.

Alas, the unspoiled location is only ruined by the fact that we have limited vacation times and obligations back home. So as the sun rose, my wife and I boarded the water taxi to return to Big Corn Island and from there repeat the process until we reach New York later that evening as the sun set on our Nicaraguan vacation.
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Old Sep 4th, 2007, 09:28 AM
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great read and will help with my January trip
how do i get toy our personal site please
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Old Sep 4th, 2007, 07:23 PM
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Very interesting report, nicely written. Am heading to Nicaragua at the end of Oct and will be hitting some of the same places. Thanks for writing it up.
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Old Sep 5th, 2007, 04:09 AM
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Sweet! I won't have time to read all this for a week or 2 but will savor it when the time arises. Thanks for taking the time to post such a great report!
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Old Sep 5th, 2007, 04:51 AM
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I too enjoyed your report. I am also going to hike the Puma trail. I am already signed up so hopefully it will happen..Sounds like an awesome challenging hike! Also going to El
Coco and spending the night. So excited for our trip.. and reading your report makes me even more excited.
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Old Sep 5th, 2007, 09:43 AM
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Thanks for such a detailed post. Glad it resurfaced, albeit a year later!
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 05:21 AM
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I haven't logged onto to the site in a while, but imagine my surprise to log on and see my last trip report had recently been revived.

Thanks everyone for the kind words. For those looking for photos and such, they are at http://community.webshots.com/user/ehazard1 However, I have posted a lot of photos since last year, so you'll have to scroll down a bit to find them.

Also, we just returned from our vacation this year and I have posted the report of that trip on the Europe board: Cheese, Wine & Mustard: Two Weeks in Paris, Brittany & Bordeaux
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 06:41 AM
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Travelbear,
Loved your photos. My trip is in less then three weeks. Puma trail here I come!
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 05:38 PM
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We're both getting close ttraveler aren't we? I just bought the coolest light for my trip - www.ovallight.com Have a zillion flashlights but love the way this one shines out and also down.

I forget...you're leaving CSF on the 24th and I'm arriving on the 25th right? Did you book with with Oro? I spoke with Rodlofo the other day, they've been having some internet/web problems but we got it sorted out.

I'm too chicken to do the Puma!
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Old Oct 4th, 2007, 04:52 AM
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Tully,
Yes, I am going to miss you by a day!
We did book with Oro travel and Roldolfo handled everything for us. He was so prompt and I feel very comfortable using him. We are using his company the first three days and also for a transfer to Coco beach. I hope they don't get tired of us. I can't wait for the Puma trail. I have been working out a bit more to get ready.
I love the light. I think I am going to order one too. This would be the trip to get it if any as it sounds like the power outages are still occuring. Pelican Eyes gave us a 20% discount off of our room because of the outages and because our room doesn't have a generator. We aren't planning on being in our room much anyway so hopefully it won't be a problem. Enjoy
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