Even though we’d been out drinking the night before, I was up with the sun. I took a while to leave as I didn’t want to wake Jaime up too early, but I was on the road just after 6am buying a bag of bread that looked like hotdog rolls for breakfast, even though Jaime’s mum had offered to make me something, to try to avoid the heat. Like the previous days, it actually was really sunny and got quite hot for a couple of hours, but by the time I’d ridden the 45km to the border the clouds had come and taken some of the sting out of it.
For about half an hour I rode with a guy who was on his way to work, just by the border, and chatted about life in the area. He was surprised to hear I’ve only got 1 sister, as he thought that being one of six siblings meant he had a small family. They all lived close and so could manage to meet up frequently, and he said he couldn’t imagine travelling the way I do because he would miss his family. And of course, I miss mine, but they get to see my ramblings here and I’m in contact with my parents by email and Skype pretty frequently (although it might not feel that way to them!) so it’s doable.
Leaving Honduras was fast, but entering Nicaragua much slower. I got to show my passport to a bunch of different people, and they all got confused about my stupid entry stamp which didn’t help matters. I really hope that after leaving the CA-4 and crossing into Costa Rica that will be behind me, because my passport is valid until the end of the decade and I really don’t fancy having the same confusion every single time I cross a border for here onwards. Having said that, at least part of that is because so many immigration officials open a passport to a random page and stamp rather than putting it in the next available space – something that’d make reading someone’s travel history from their passport so much faster. My two Chinese visas and my US visa are especially annoying for that, because they’re near the end so every immigration official flicks there and then gets confused about all the empty space between them and the stamp they’re looking for.
The Nicaraguan officials asked for an entry fee of $12, $10 for a tourist card and $2 for something else. Even though they have their own currency in the Cordoba, the dollar is quite common with tourists and many places accept both. I paid my $12 with a pair of $1 coins and a $10 bill before getting to wait for an age as a busload of people’s passports got priority processing. When the official eventually got to my passport, he looked at the $10 bill and gave it back to me, apparently the miniscule tear it had on it meant that it was no longer legal tender, at least in his eyes. I had heard that outside of the US people are very picky about accepting imperfect dollars, but didn’t expect that level of fussiness. Thankfully I had some more in my bag and so gave him a $20, but before handing it over made a show of examining it to make sure it would meet his standards. I don’t think he was happy. He then gave me a $10 bill in change and I examined that one too and while there were no tears, there was quite a bit of blue ink which I pointed out asking if that was OK. He definitely didn’t like that and made the internationally understood handcuffs gesture. I shrugged at him and said I was just trying to understand. A couple of Spaniards who were waiting behind me told me that they thought it was a fair question, but I know I was being argumentative having been unimpressed with his attitude.
After getting the passport sorted out and entering Nicaragua I noticed a definite increase in the number of horses and bicycles, even more profound than I’d felt crossing from El Salvador to Honduras. There was also a noticeable lack of barbed wire on top of fences. Apparently the organised crime of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in the Maras haven’t been able to get a grasp on Nicaragua. One idea I’ve read is that part of is that due to the way Central Americans who went to the US were treated. Those going from Nicaragua were seen as fleeing the evils of the Sandinistas and their left-wing policies, and so the US government treated them normally. Those from the other three countries were treated poorly which lead to them being much more likely to enter a life of crime. Then George Bush decided to reduce the prison population by deporting a lot of prisoners who, while their parents weren’t from the US, had been born and raised in the US, many of whom didn’t speak much if any Spanish. Thus large swathes of prisoners got deported to their mother-countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and ended up forming the core of the Maras, but few if any to Nicaragua.
I stopped for my first food in a small restaurant by the side of the road and ordered a plate of eggs for 50C ($2) which was quite delicious, although too salty. My lunch breaks are some of my favourite times of the day. I generally find that having been up since around 5am, by the time I’m having lunch sometime between 12 and 2 I’m kinda tired, and so, after eating, make no attempts to fight my rather heavy eyelids and take a nap at the table. After doing so, I was refreshed and the rain clouds had cleared a little so headed out.
I’d originally figured that I’d get to Chinandega, about 120km from Choluteca, but when I got there I was still feeling OK although the wind seemed to be constantly blowing into my face no matter which way the bike got pointed. I picked up a little snack, and then kept going towards León. The highlights were drafting off a construction vehicle going at about 35km/h for the best part of 20 minutes, and then when that was done I met two teenagers who were riding into town. They were racing each other, and so I joined in with them too. I’d sit behind them for a little, and they’d tell me I was going too slowly so I’d surge past them and they’d try to keep up. Riding by myself I tend to find I go slower because I zone out and my legs just go in circles. On the other hand, when someone is in front of me, I’ll generally be more aware of my pace and try to keep up with them. That applies just as much for when I was riding with Peter as when I meet a guy riding to his farm.
León is a popular tourist destination which meant that my last-minute Couchsurfing requests hadn’t got any responses, so I went to the bomberos (fire station). I gave my normal introduction and they accepted me warmly asking how long I was planning on staying. With the need to get to Granada, it was just the one night, but they said they’d recently hosted an Argentinian for 4 nights and I was welcome to stay longer if my plans changed.
Having cleaned up and got my shelter ready it was time to ride the couple of kilometres to the city centre. I’d heard that it was a student town with a vibrant nightlife but it must be take place elsewhere. There were a few people sat in the main square, but most of them looked like tourists huddled up in a cafe enjoying the view of the decrepit-looking cathedral, the largest in Latin America. The only food options I could find were restaurants aimed at tourists and small food trucks with hotdogs and hamburgers. Thankfully the ever-present-security guard pointed me in the direction of the market where I could find real food, which all seemed to involve some kind of cheese. I’d heard bad things about food outside of Mexico, but it’s still working for me, and in some ways I prefer it to tacos which I found didn’t do much to satiate my hunger. The main dish is gallo pinto, which is remarkably similar to Cuban arroz moro and Belizean rice and beans, although it’s generally then served some kind of meat and tajados (long, thin chips made out of bananas).
The next morning I packed my tent up, after cleaning up all the presents the birds had given me, and then wandered around León for a while, although with the rain coming down, frequently quite heavily, I mainly hung out under cover in the main park, along with a few disillusioned Korean tourists and local families not letting the weather get in the way of their Sunday outing plans.
When the rain eventually cleared up, I started off to ride some of the 135km to Granada. About 30km in I was in the small community of Jalisco, made up of a bunch of run-down houses and no visible business, and saw that everyone seemed to be outside one house. I pulled over to take a couple of pictures, and was waved over to join them. Apparently Nicaragua celebrates Mother’s Day on the 30th of May, but the local government from the nearby town of La Paz Centro had decided to celebrate it on the Sunday in Jalisco, who were also celebrating recently getting electricity. There was a variety of activities, from hopscotch and poetry for prizes and the inevitable piñata. There had been some suggestions of dancing, but the 20 or so mothers that were sat round didn’t react positively to that, no matter how much the announcer tried to sell it. I think part of it might have been the distinct lack of men, who were mainly from La Paz Centro there to run the show.
I had made friends with one of the guys from La Paz Centro and he said that we should meet up in the park there after the party was done. So when everyone headed home, and the officials drove back, I quickly rode the 8km to get to La Paz, but even though I sat round for a couple of hours he never showed up. I guess we should have picked a place in the park, as even though I figured my bike would stand out there were a good amount of people hanging out there. I asked at the local police station, and they said that I could put my tent up in front of them. Given that they were on the main square, as most police stations, that didn’t seem the greatest idea in the world, so I delayed putting my tent up later than I normally would have to give the masses a chance to disperse before going to sleep.
Getting to Granada was fairly straight forward. Go straight, make my way through the capital of Managua and then I’d be there, hanging out with my friend B. I’d hoped that the recent pattern of overcast weather outside of the first hour or two would continue, but I was treated to blistering sunshine for most of the day, which meant I had a fair few breaks going through Managua in particular. One of those was at a petrol station where I stopped to get water, and spent half an hour with a very inquisitive security guard. He’d asked most of the normal questions, and I was about to leave when he signalled me over to a quieter part. He then spent time quizzing me about . He was a very open man who told me that although he was 45, he had started having sex when he was 15 and hadn’t missed a day since and so, for him at least, travelling without a girlfriend was surely the biggest challenge. In fact my biggest challenge of the day, outside of the heat, was going through the capital city of Managua, well around it at least. The signage was distinctly lacking and there were a fair few more potholes than anywhere else I’d been so far. Having said that, compared with Tegus it was a delight, other than where they decided to brick the road instead of using pavement which is just so much less comfortable, although I guess cheaper.
I found the bomberos in Granada, and was surprised to find how dilapidated their station was. I’d read of people staying with them in other parts of Central America and getting their own rooms with AC. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, it’s great to have a place in the middle of a city to throw up a tent, just that it seemed to have a level of both staff and care that suggested there hadn’t been a fire in Granada since it was burnt down in the 1850s by William Walker, to quote Lonely Planet…
Latin America’s turbulent history is littered with colorful characters, but there were few messiah complexes bigger than that of William Walker, an American adventurer who directed and starred in Conquistador 2, more than three centuries after Cortéz took the New World by storm with the original hit. He started his one-man mission in 1853, leading a small party to attack Mexico, where he declared himself president of ‘independent’ Sonora before being ignominiously driven out. In 1855 the Liberals of León asked Walker to help them seize power from Granada’s Conservatives. Walker entered Nicaragua with 56 followers, attacked Granada and prevailed. Instead of ceding it to his employers, he soon had himself elected president of Nicaragua (in ‘free and fair elections’ no doubt), and the US recognized his government. He then reinstituted slavery, declared English the country’s official language, mortgaged the entire nation to fund personal borrowing, and invaded Costa Rica, announcing his intention to control the whole of Central America. This was a step too far, and those nations united to drive him out. Walker fled Granada, leaving the city alight, and was forced to return to the USA. Not easily put off, he landed with a small army at Greytown six months later, only to be arrested and deported by the US Navy. He tried again in 1860; this time the British Navy captured him and turned him over to the Hondurans, who ended his adventures with a volley of rifle fire in 1860.
I’m also reading Open Veins of Latin America, and the picture they paint about William Walker is even less rosy, but I’ll let you find that one yourself.
I met up with B and her boyfriend Elan and had a delightful evening wandering round Granada and then hanging out chatting for hours. It was certainly worth missing whatever I missed in rushing to getting to Granada to hang out with them.