Nicaragua (or Nica to her close friends) is the new kid on the Central American block. Named after the tribe who were happily inhabiting the lake shore when those pesky Spanish arrived (Nicarao), Nica, at slightly larger than New York state, is the largest country in Central America. With the highest percentage of forest cover, lowest population density, largest lake (freshwater Lago de Nicaragua) and lowest homicide rate to boot, no wonder it’s fast becoming one of the top travel destinations in CA.
With an early morning start in El Salvador we made a quick pit stop to pick up a reflective triangle and mini fire extinguisher for the van before hitting the first of two borders.
NOTE: If the cops pull you over in Honduras…which they will, and they did, 25km from the Nicaraguan border like we’d been warned…you’ll have a no chance talking your way out of a bribe without these. Also worth noting, hand them a photo copy of your passport and documents instead of the originals. They’ll hopefully realise you’re not stupid and if you’re lucky like us, give you a high five and send you on your way. Two easy enough yet long border crossings later, we were in a new country and an unfamiliar town, Leon.
Rolling up late in the day to an indescribable heat radiating off all surfaces, we parked up out the front of the Imperial Hostel and decide to splurge on a room. Cheap and cheerful the owners welcomed us in, where rooms are located around a courtyard, typical of most buildings in this region, keeping the temperature pleasant enough and avoiding any stuffiness. This along with on site laundry (clean clothes!) and a reasonable kitchen and we were happy.
Leon is a less polished town than some other backpacker favourites, though all the same it retains an inner beauty that once you peel back the skin you can’t help but discover. Following our long hot day at the borders, all we wanted was a cold beer. Enter Siesta and Via Via hostels. Right opposite Imperial Hostel, the bar out front of Siesta Hostel serves up ice cold (literally, there was ice on the bottle) Mythos beers. Strong, tasty and refreshing, if you’re on a tight budget your wallet will probably only reluctantly let you have one, as ours did. Wandering through the cobbled streets we made our way to Via Via Hostel and cafe, where we joined locals and thrifty travellers alike to quaff jugs of cheap local cerveza in the hospitable cafe/bar/courtyard.
Our friends from Punta Mango in El Salvador had let us in on a great spot to take a coffee so next morning we headed out for a real caffeine fix. Libelula, Spanish for dragonfly, is perpetually filled with gringos on their iphones and laptops, though does make one of the best mint iced coffees you’ll ever have. Chilling out for a while in the peaceful open air courtyard (nobody talks as their all too busy draining the WiFi…guilty), we head back to Imperial Hostel.
With last nights sleep (we use the word sleep loosely) being spent on a mattress so crap we had to top and tail to stop from rolling into each other, and with Matt being struck down by the dreaded man flu, it was off next door to Lazybones Hostel. With private rooms for the same price, a courtyard slung with hammocks and topped off with a swimming pool for the price this place is a gem.
Riding the bikes around town, Leon has a few nice buildings such as the Cathedral de Leon, otherwise known as the Real and renowned Basilica Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we’ll stick with the former thanks. Guarded by several menacing looking lion sculptures which double as a great photo opportunity, it dominates the plaza out front, which is hemmed with the usual souvenir stalls, ambiguous looking hotdog and burger vendors and the occasional old gentleman ringing his bell to sell ice cream. With the heat afternoon heat becoming too much to bare, it’s back to the hostel for a dip.
Being people who love to try new ‘extremes’ (if you could call it that), Leon is the only place in the world you can try to so called extreme sport of volcano boarding. You can arrange a trip through most hostels (including Lazybones), but we’ve also been told Quetzaltrekkers does a great deal and it’s just around the corner. Setting off to Cerro Negro’s windswept slopes, the van bounces along a single lane dirt road, inhaling plumes of dust as it does and narrowly avoiding puncturing a window as we squeeze slowly past a donkey cart loaded with firewood.
Getting to the visitors center we’re given a run down on the park, with it’s various hills and volcanoes, by our guide. Like Guatemala, Nicaragua’s spine consists mainly of volcanoes. With at total of 19 (dwarfed by Guate’s 37) Nicaragua has eight active volcanoes, and Cerro Negro is it’s and Central America’s youngest (another point for Nica!), surprising the locals when it emerged from the earth only 125 years ago in 1850.
Setting out in the high, hot midday sun the five of us in the group made our way around the side of the hill, when suddenly as we hit the final ridge the prevailing winds threaten to swipe us off into the valley, with our volcano boards held above our heads Mary Poppins style. Dropping the boards and bag of protective overalls down, the guide motions for us to do the same (words were useless, you couldn’t hear a thing over the howling wind) then leads us up past smoldering pockets of sulphuric pungent smelling earth to the summit which at 728m looks straight into the crater.
Putting our hands into small holes emitting steam, you can feel the heat of this baby volcano and the soil is steaming to touch. Being a volcanic area, geologists are constantly taking measurements to monitor seismic activities, and we managed to spot one such fellow who seemed dangerously close to a steam spewing vent.
Returning back to the launch pad the guide first looks unsettled, then becomes a little frantic when realising his backpack containing the necessary protective gear has taken off with the wind down the hill. Shrugging his shoulders there’s nothing for it but to run down the volcano. Calling the driver for help to find said backpack, we see them meet halfway on the slope. Finally reaching the top, our man is far too exhausted and out of breathe to explain the requirements of riding, so we kinda piece it all between us with some pointing and charades to help. Donning our denim overalls, gloves, goggles and a mean gangsta bandana, it’s time to ride. Setting off against another challenger Matt pushes off, several times, and disappears over the edge.
Matt: Yeah so being snowboarders with years of experience it was a little disappointing not to be able to stand up on the way down. This combined with a plastic bottom that was split made the going slow and difficult as the board would catch and want to send me sideways. Persistently trying to point the nose down, the volcano’s slope and board finally had their way with me, sending me tumbling head over heels down the grainy slope. Emptying a mouth full of grit and checking for the Go Pro in hand, I reached the bottom in one piece, much to the amusement of my racing partner whom had already finished, sans crash.
Sarah managed to make it down a little more gracefully though did have to walk the last few meters when her board ran out of steam. All in all, this was something that we’d never done though we would recommend that you look to other companies and ask to look at their boards, as some had a curved up noses and smoother base, making them far superior and therefore faster.
Returning to Leon and with the heat dissipating it was time to find food. Again passing the Basilica we could frequently smell sweet wafts of smokey BBQ. Following our noses (Matt’s is that big it don’t miss much), we’re lead behind the cathedral to where various BBQ’s have been set up street side and the meats are cooking. Pointing at various bit and pieces on the grill, Sarah over orders a bunch of food, mainly because of the word ‘queso’ coming out of the ladies mouth and the fact that everything from shredded fried zucchinni patties to little rolled up pancakes contained it.
Stuffed in more ways than one (for those of you who aren’t up to date with your Australian English we use the word ‘stuffed’ to mean both extremely full from eating, and extremely tired) we called it a night.
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