Published: June 9th 2010May 26th 2010
Where to go next?
Leon Take 1
Next up for us was the colonial city of Leon. This was once Nicaragua's capital, until Managua took over in 1857 due to the aggressive rivalry between Liberal Leon and Conservative Granada - a bit like Canberra being made capital in Australia to stop the bickering between Melbourne and Sydney, but with more civil war. It is similar to Granada but less shiny and colourful, a bit more grungy, with a less touristy feel and more of a 'people certainly live here and go about their daily business' feel. It is also situated in Central America's most volcanic region (you'll see us sport some groovy new t-shirts when you see us again with each of the local volcanoes depicted and named!), and the original site of the city was actually destroyed in an earthquake in 1610, the city being relocated to it's present location afterwards. You can visit the ruins of the old city ('Leon Viejo' it is called), which has been declared an UNESCO world heritage site. But we didn't.
We didn't actually do much at all in our first stay in Leon (however, as of writing this we will soon return briefly for our
4th visit) due to the incredibly intense heat making everything unpleasant and sticky, and a 24 hour tummy bug that left Sarah in bed with crippling stomach pains for that period. We also received an email from the British embassy at Washington DC concerning our passport applications, so there was also lots of to-ing and fro-ing between international call centres (it is however very cheap to ring the USA from here - approx 3.3 pence a minute) and our hostel.
As soon as Sarah was better, and thankfully the bug didn't last too long, we headed off to the North Western edge of Nicaragua to a little hostel next to the sea in a small village called Jiquilillo (pronounced Hicky Lee-oh). It was incredibly hot here too, but we were in the perfect place. We would spend our days lazing in hammocks, reading books from the extensive library of the ex-peace corps chap who owns the place, hanging out with the handful of other people staying there, and taking a dip in the warm waves of the pacific ocean. Here we also witnessed an incredible electrical storm in the night with the most incredibly loud thunder
(at the time, the loudest thunder I had ever heard), and went cycling one day to a point where the coastline meets an estuary, and had a dip in the converging waters. We didn't hang around too long though, as we had booked a volcano-boarding trip in Leon with the Nicaraguan arm of Quetzaltrekkers (we did two hikes with this organization in Guatemala).
Leon Take 2 - Volcano!
Back in Leon, staying at a different hostel this time, with a room that didn't turn into an oven, we set out early in the morning with our two guides and a few other 'boarders' in the back of a truck and made the slow and very bumpy journey to Cerro Negro (black hill), an active volcano outside of Leon. We hiked up for about an hour to get to the top, and stopped for a while to admire the steam vents, incredible views of old lava flows, different volcanoes and the landscape in general. The Volcano itself did seem rather active, and some say that it is overdue another eruption. It didn't erupt while we were stood atop it, gawping at the hot grit beneath our feet, red
and black rocks and sulfurous fumes. We got kitted up (red or blue boilersuits and protective goggles) and headed for the slope. The slope certainly looked very steep, and we'd heard stories of people hurting themselves badly here. Also, a group of walkers had gathered to watch us hurtle down the steep gritty slope. We sat down on our wooden boards, goggles on, and pushed off.
But unfortunately we just couldn't seem to move. We each took it in turns to shuffle down the top of the slope, stopping to tip the piles of grit off of our boards, and trying in vain to push ourselves off and gain some momentum. A few people did pick up some speed about halfway down, and had a good run for the second half. Sarah and I most certainly did not, in fact I had to walk part of the way down. It seems my board had broke, the smooth surface on the underside had ripped partly off and was collecting grit and stopping me rather than being slick and shiny and propelling me down at speed. The group who was stood and watched had long since left, muttering to each other
That was Sarah!
how silly we were and how rubbish it looked.
However, after some snacks we headed up again, this time with non-broken boards, and had another attempt. This time Sarah and I raced down, and although we had slow starts, we were soon hurtling down the side of the volcano on our makeshift toboggans at considerable speed. I was racing ahead, shaking my fist victoriously at my dusty wake where I imagined Sarah to be, when I veered to one side and before I knew it had toppled off completely. It was actually a very comfy landing on the grit, and I jumped back on quickly just as Sarah overtook me. I started to get up to speed again when the same thing happened again. Also, I soon found out that my board had broken again. So for the final part I walked and jumped down the slope, throwing my board in front of me each few steps as Sarah sat at the base, victorious.
Next day we had our big Quetzaltrekkers trip planned, an adventure through Somoto Canyon in northern Nicaragua. It took quite a bit of travelling and a few buses to get
to, firstly to the town of Esteli in the mountains east of Leon and Managua. Here we stopped for some lunch at a cafe that did really nice banana bread and cake, and was suitably named “The Smoking Monkey”. We looked at some handmade cowboy boots (Esteli is famous for these), and had a bit of a wander through the market. We've become rather paranoid tourists after some of our adventures and we were rather concerned for the fate of the cameras of our fellow trekkers, a group of French Canadians. The cameras looked very flashy and expensive and they had them on show permanently, but nothing happened. Possibly we have become too wary and distrusting! Next bus was to Somoto, where we took another short ride in a pickup truck to the entrance to the canyon. After Guatemala we are pro's at pickup truck rides, but it was the other guys' first ride and it was nice to see their excitement - it was fun and the first time in many months I've had goosebumps from being cold!
We had been joined by a local guy by this point who was to be our guide for the next
A warning not heeded
Do those clouds look a bit .. rainy... to you?
day's adventures (and what adventures they were...). We got down to our first river which we would have to cross to get to our camping spot for the night. There had been a LOT of rain over the last few days and the river looked rather high - so high we couldn't walk across but had to get a boat. The skies had been looking ominous for a little while, and as we were walking to the proposed camping spot the heavens opened. It was decided it was too late and too wet to get to the canyon lookout where we had originally intended to stay (and which involved a 20 minute scramble up the canyon edge), so we put our bags on big rubber rings, climbed in the boat again and went back across the river to a small community where our guide lived. We sheltered in a family home while 4 or 5 local guys got soaking wet putting up a gazebo for us to camp under. The community had no electricity, cooked on fires and lived in small houses made of mud and palm fronds, so it was quite an experience to see how they lived, especially
First mode of river transport
We were meant to be walking this bit!
for the Canadians who had come straight from working in big flashy offices in Montreal! The rain had turned the ground where we had planned to put up our tents into a muddy mess reminiscent of Glastonbury, so after all the trouble putting up the Gazebo, we decided to try and make a dash to the wooden lookout that was our original planned camping spot. We crossed the river again, the boys wading through and me in the boat with the bags. I was given the royal treatment as I was the only girl - and the only one who couldn't just strip down to my pants when I got rained on! We climbed up to the lookout, got bitten by evil ants and sodding wet, only to find the lookout to be wetter than under the gazebo - and twice as windy! It was disaster after disaster thanks to the weather, so we climbed back down the hill and made our way back to the river. By this point it was getting dark, so the race was on! The guide who was walking behind the group got separated from the rest of us while getting his torch out of
Well I was dry!
While all the boys waded through the river up to their waists!
his bag, so we had a bit of a scary moment when we realised he was missing in the dark and rain - luckily he was found pretty quickly, and was unscathed! The river was raging even more by the time we got to it and with the help of torches, lots of shouting and our local guide swimming against the current holding onto a chain of us helpless gringos sitting in rubber rings. The second group to go across swung round en masse nearly disappeared down the river! But it was exciting stuff! Thankfully a local family felt sorry for us and let us all sleep and cook in their house. So, a little later than planned, we tucked into our vegetable curry and got tucked up in our sleeping bags for a sleep. There were 4 tiny puppies who joined us (one of which had a cuddle with me in my sleeping bag before I got too scared I might roll over in the night and squash him!) who were very cute until they cried at top volume all night.
We didn't sleep for very long until 4 of us were woken by some massive crashes outside,
Second mode of river transport
Ben relaxing while our poor guide swam pulling us along!
the sounds of mud and rocks falling down the canyon wall. At first we thought the house was going to be covered but luckily for us it was on the other side of the canyon - although very close to the lookout! It was one of the only times in my life when I thought it was all over! But it couldn't have been that traumatic for the others - 3 of the guys slept right through it, and the owner of the house saw us all at the door staring terrified into the darkness and started laughing!
Our guide had decided that it was not safe enough to follow our intended plan of trekking and travelling down the river on rafts and innertubes, jumping off rocks and having general fun - and we agreed. By this point the river had turned very brown, churning and scary looking, and we were all a bit tired and a bit soggy. So we had a quick hike up to a couple of lookouts where we could see the canyon in all it's glory (it was very impressive), then after floating back downstream to the canyon entrance in innertubes, we took our
A snapshot of Leonese life from the roof of the cathedral (nosy buggers)
bags back up the main road where we caught another pickup back to Somoto. On the way back through Esteli we had a whistlestop tour of a cigar factory (Nicaragua is famous for it's cigars, grown in the fertile volcanic soil with seeds brought from Cuba), and had a lunch of homemade bread, brie and humous at a cafe/garden centre. It was nice to have some wholewheat bread that wasn't just white bread coloured with molasses as is common over here! We finally arrived back in Leon at 8 in the evening after a very long bus ride - but a bus ride on a chicken bus with a TV, showing Chinese films in honour of the French Canadians (who were actually originally from Vietnam, but bless the bus driver, there aren't many Asian people in Central America, so he tried his best!).
Leon Take 3
The next day in Leon we spent sorting out passports (we had found out from Washington that all was needed was an address in Nicaragua to send them to and they would be with us within a few days - yay!), and chatting to family at home on Skype. We ventured
Leon Cathedral Roof
With views over the city and (surprise) volcanoes
out in the afternoon and checked out a few of Leon's sights, including the Cathedral, where we climbed to the roof and got some great views of the town and surrounding volcanoes. Soon after we got back to the hostel the rain began again and hadn't stopped by the time we left Leon - over 36 hours later. It was miserable!! We spent the next day moping around at the hostel, and decided to treat ourselves with a visit to the cinema that evening. The cinema was heavily air conditioned, even though it had actually turned a bit chilly outside due to the rain, and we sat there soaking wet and a bit cold, but it was definitely worth it... especially as a ticket was about £1. 30!
The next day we decided to escape the rain and gloom and venture out to San Fransisco Libre, Reading's twin town in Nicaragua and our next planned destination.
There are more photos below