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Published: June 19th 2019
The lady owner of our guest house in Antigua had advised against; it definitely wasn't safe to get to and cross into El Salvador by chicken buses. There again she was touting for a tourist shuttle plying the route, at some three times the price. We compromised and left, by chicken bus, at the crack of dawn: the whole journey would be completed in daylight. Hopefully.
Two buses were necessary to reach Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, the Guatemalan border town where we were duly stamped out. A 1km walk through no-man's-land saw us to El Salvadorian immigration who merely greeted us on the path, had a quick squint at our passports and bade us buenas (there was no stamp). Buses to Sonsonate, seemingly the only destination option, were right round the corner. And from there a final bus took us up the Ruta de las Flores to our targeted little town of Ataco. Four buses and a total travelling time of ten hours, without a hint of nastiness, let alone threat. Indeed the El Salvadorians are very smiley, bus station snacks cheap and the buses themselves a bargain.
At this point I need to add
an amendment. It has become apparent that the CA4 collective doesn't work very well for visitors: you actually only get 90 days residency in total; this is not started afresh when you move between the members. We'd already blown 57 of these in Guatemala. Consequently it would be a rapid dash through El Salvador and no stop in troubled (more dangerous) Honduras.
Our first El Salvadorean bus (less kempt and less chromed than their Guatemalan equivalents) immediately threw up some observations. The bus itself was without a conductor, their place being taken by a revolving turnstile and payment made to the driver upon entering. This has the immediate effect of flipping the location of the most desirable seats: usually these would be at the front as the crashing rides are amplified to the rear, but now as exiting is only possible from the rear door (and pauses to alight brief in the extreme) its proximity is eagerly sought. It seems time is of the essence here as buses are also driven at breakneck speed.
Contrary to Guatemala the women do not wear a traditional dress, although elder ladies and young girls may sport a
white lace headscarf. Meanwhile the men have jettisoned the curly-toed-boots, but still retain the stetsons; whilst it is not uncommon for them to be accompanied by a machete, often in a scabbard trailing decorative leather strips. Happily none were brandished in our presence.
A number of younger women have dyed their hair, the shade approximating to ginger. Whether this was their targeted colouration or that sought was simply unattainable (due to deeply pigmented hair) - here I'm reminded of British women of pensionable age (pigmentless hair) - is unclear.
The buses also see many transient hawkers: the men appear to specialise in bags of coconut milk and chocolate snacks; the women in hot corn cobs or fruit. These women and indeed - bizarrely - some who are not selling wear a mini, many pocketed, apron. This is not merely a practical piece of garb for storing money as it bears most resemblance to a poorly fitting ra-ra skirt, each baby pink or pastel blue tier adorned with lacy edging and further decorated with bows and ribbons.
As we sped along the dusty roads my eyes were drawn to the amount of
garbage strewn about the verges. Some of this, in large piles, was obviously fly-tipped but then I witnessed person after person nonchalantly hurling their plastic bags (previously containing hot corn cobs, coconut milk, etc..) from the bus windows.
Ali's eyes were obviously drawn elsewhere as she lent in close to offer "have you noticed the size of the boobs"? I paid more attention to such matters and she was not wrong; breasts (those belonging to the female gender - we were no longer in Belize) were definitely, uniformly, on the large side of large and yet most were positively pertly. Ali leant in again to inform that bras were industrial, back straps were - apparently - inches in width.
On arrival at Ataco we found the cobbled, grid-laid streets packed with local day-tourists; there were even theme park-like motor trains performing tours. Not a gringo was to be seen. Equally there appeared to be a dearth of places to stay. We found one option almost immediately, but $15 for a rustic room with shared bathroom (we'll mention "the pool" later) seemed pricey; and, though empty, they were prepared to bargain, not. Cue a dumping
of packs outside the hostel. Ali sat in the semi-shade minding them whilst I performed a scour of town for alternatives. A completely indifferent mum and her friend returned to loitering on the adjoining stoop as their children resumed playing in the sweltering street. I duly became mightily lost, one pretty single-storey block very much resembling the next; and yet, in all my wandering, I still located only one other hostel - a hostel whose doors were shut and who stubbornly ignored my knocking. Ali subsequently reccied the opposite side of town with similar results. OK we conceded to the ladies of Atico Backpackers
, we will take the room. They didn't seem surprised in the least.
As dusk descended so the tourists departed and to the already rachetted heat was added a stifling humidity. We looked to "the pool" in sad disbelief. Before our room, indeed all three rooms - not including the two, literal, shed rooms - that face onto the communal seating area is a concrete structure... the pool. The useless 7ft square, 3ft proud birdbath sat afore us, empty, save for a stagnant muddy corner. Pity those sad individuals who might have booked on-line
expecting an actual bathing experience. Dark clouds were massing, a storm was coming and we were beerless, but unable to resist I slipped into the board shorts and donned the snorkel and mask for a quick photo op in its glorious stupidity.
That done and with the first advance spits falling we really did need to seek a brewed beverage before all hell broke loose. In Central America this is never an issue: all corner shops sell beer; we'd worry about the cheapest options tomorrow. In Ataco (later we'd realise in all of El Salvador) this is not the case. Only the supermarkets sell alcohol and advertisements for such a product are totally absent. Our theory is that alcohol is viewed as a gateway drug to gang membership (notably Donald's favourite, MS-13) and thus its availability is constrained?
Dodging the deluge we returned with a stockpile of Victoria cans. Disuassion from the demon drink obviously extends to price; it isn't Belize bad, but still...
We sat drinking as the hot rain hammered on the corrugated iron roof overhead and flowed off in a great curtain before us. And then in walked
a very wet German cyclist. He'd had an eventful day. On route, still in rural Guatemala, he'd been confronted by a rope strung across his path. Two youths demanded a payment of 2 quetzales (equivalent to 25 cents) to let him pass. Bemused at the ridiculously low magnitude of their attempted extortion he still - on principal - refused to pay and yet, feeling more playful than seriously threatened, countered with an offer of 1Q. This displeased them greatly and suddenly the toll rose to $100. A stand-off ensued. He'd already had a hard day's ride, was due a rest, and so dismounted, sat in the shade and watched as they pondered their next move. Time passed and standing in the sun holding a rope must have felt pretty stupid; the German was obviously in no hurry, they didn't have the gumption to physically rob him and, eventually, they merely slunk away.
El salvador is home to the pupusa, a ball of cornmeal dough that is stuffed with combinations of cheese, refried beans, chicken, chicharron (fatty pork rinds) and jalapeno. The stuffed dough is patted into a bloated disc that is then grilled until crisp and a
little blistered externally whilst still dumpling soft inside. On your table is a bowl of Curtido, the accompanying mixture of pickled grated cabbage and vegetables, the best examples with additional coriander. They are a marriage made in heaven.
We had wanted to head north to an equally little frequented destination, Suchitoto. But now, with limited time due to the 90 day CA4 "visa" - tourism in El Salvador and Honduras, already low on people's Central American list, is certainly not benefiting from this arrangement - and, admittedly, being a little wary of chicken-busing it across Honduras, we organised a "shuttle" direct to Leon in Nicaragua.
Leon is yet another crumbling old colonial city that, on staying a while, simply makes it hard for you to move on. It gets under your skin; it has charm, a vibe, and a slightly edgy underbelly. Our lazy shuttle had provided us with a "free" night's accommodation upon arrival - admittedly pretty necessary for an after midnight touchdown - but it being a youngsters' party hangout it was never going to be a long stay.
Immediately we were struck by the further elevation in temperature;
Nicaragua in May - just prior to the onset of the rains - is stifling, even the locals find it draining.
On day two we discovered a gem of a hostel, Hostel Albergue. The door was opened by a wasted dreaded white guy. His eyes were pink, his pupils vast and he stank of alcohol. As it turned out Jordan was American; he wasn't staff - quite - but he would show us around. And a beautiful cozy little place it is with two airy private rooms, a small dorm, great - though utensil limited - kitchen and central al fresco sitting/chilling area. The latter complete with a bountiful grapefruit tree - who knew rum and grapefruit was a winner? Frank, the owner, was out of town and so we bargained with his second in command, a gorgeous and somewhat misunderstood man. With a speech impediment he speaks in a loud, staccato manner that many find gruff whilst all he is doing is making himself clearly understood. Indeed he speaks minimal English (Jordan says he's hardly ever heard him do so) but on hearing our feeble Spanish he always made the effort for us. And he did
drop the room price... minimally.
We spent much of our time hanging, boozily, with Jordan (in town to pay his electricity bill - he owns a hostel an hour away on the Pacific coast at Salinas Grandes) and a German girl, Raphaela. Our introduction to her went something like this:
R."My name's easy to remember, just think of the archangel"
Me."I think you're confusing angels and ninja turtles"
One day, all somewhat hungover, we persuaded Jordan to join us on a healthy (free) walking tour of the city. He knows Leon intimately, but, we reasoned, he might learn something of its history. And indeed we all did. Our young guide was delightful and a font of information, sadly much of it disconcerting.
Two hours later, mighty sweaty, we decided a that a solitary beer would not be unreasonable. Really we'd only buy one each. However, the shop had sold out of Victoria Frost; Frost being the summer seasonal promotional that is markedly cheaper ($1.50/litre) than all other alternatives. OK, we'd go to the cheap bar, for one. This tatty seedy shack
of a haunt is located in the rough quarter of town, tucked away behind the market. We sat out in the gloom among the massed ranks of beer crates in what passed for a beer garden. Also present were several old drunks, one of whom repeatedly attempted to engage Ali in conversation, although his slurred delivery wasn't aiding the language barrier. Beers consumed we remained true to our intentions and rose to leave. The curvy somewhat daunting Caribbean woman who seems to reside at the bar/pay desk and whom we had presumed was staff ushered us back to our seats. Ali's friend had just bought us more beers. And could they both join us? Thus enforced we pulled up additional seats into which he fell and she sashayed. The table was loaded with bottles and as he emptied their contents into and over glasses our new lady companion proffered her hand and announced with a gorgeously heavy lilt "I Darcy, me a sex worker". Darcy hails from Bluefields (named after the 17th century Dutch pirate Abraham Blaufelt) on the Caribbean coast and like many from those parts her first language is English. Indeed their Spanish speaking compatriots on the western
Pacific coast are often still referred to as "the Spanish". She has a son that she gave birth to aged eleven. He, now a young adult, knows of her profession and she sends what little she can to help him with his continued education; the rest of her family are certainly not aware of how she makes a living. She drinks a lot, although only beer as rum makes her crazy. She is loud, brash, a little crude, laughs uproariously, gazes deep into your eyes when you talk and is really rather lovely - if still a little scary. Our drunken benefactor was becoming animated and, pointing at Ali, Darcy translated: "He in love wit you". The beers continued to flow. Somewhat later Darcy proclaimed "He too drunk, de bar is closing. We go a different bar. No worry, tis cheap." Ali nipped to the loo (shed); not prepared to wait Darcy, hardly concealed, squatted behind some crates.
On leaving we were joined by another local man, Darcy's friend, who may or may not be her official minder. Thus our little pose emerged onto the dark deserted street, wove through closed market stalls and down narrow muddy
alleys until we reached our destination. Inside it was quite a sprawl and fairly busy; most surprisingly it appeared rather orderly. We'd not been sat long when a nearby table started some cross-bar banter. Several rounds later and we were pushing multiple tables together to join our hecklers. The scene was now far from decorous; music was thumping from an ancient juke box and Ali was hauled up to dance by a hefty middle-aged man. Subsequently the conversation centred on how jealous I must be. Repeated denials were sniffed at so, at a loss, I joined Darcy in a brief grind. This might not have been the best riposte as on retaking our seats Darcy was once again translating: "dis man he also love her, he wanna take her home; all dees men jas love her". Christ, apparently (a bit like drooling toddy heads in Sri Lanka) Ali is pure catnip to aging overweight Nicaraguans. Meanwhile Darcy's (our?) minder sat silently, stoically, at our side. We'd all tried to chat with him but he seemed immune to conversation, little interested in alcohol and totally content, fixed smile in place, in simply sitting and watching the room. And then, suddenly, Darcy
was out - she had a punter. She leant down and whispered in my ear "him keep you safe 'ere, but dem streets gonna be mean soon". We didn't need to be told twice and with rapid goodbyes, handshakes and hugs we hot tailed it back to the hostel. So much for good intentions...
Dissatisfaction with the Sandinista government has been growing since 2013 and the demonstrations of last year, initiated by Ortega's social security reforms that saw benefits decrease and taxes rise, left, officially, almost 30 people dead. This total is disputed by most Nicaraguans as a gross underestimate.
Regardless, in the wake of these troubles the number of tourists plummeted. As a visitor today the only exposure you'll have to Nicaragua's (continued) strife is in the number of closed hostels and the lack of like-minded individuals present. There is still a common perception that Nicaragua is dangerous to visit. It isn't. Even during those dark days last year tourists were never specifically targeted; it was the protesting local populace who were at risk. The situation is changing, with almost every informed individual we meet on the Central American trail intending to visit. But there
have been many casualties. In Leon's big Pali
supermarket we got chatting to a gentleman, Simon, at the meat counter. He was visiting his family - his wife and child - as currently, by necessity, he works at a call centre in the capital, Managua. Two years ago he owned a successful tour agency in Leon, a business that he adored. Last year with no visitors he went broke. His grateful thanks to us for being in Nicaragua - hopefully at the vanguard of a real resurgence in tourism - and his optimism for the future were both poignant and inspiring. We don't know we're born.
Jordan finally paid his electricity bill, bought some chicken feed (apparently he also has an in-progress farm) and was - really - homestead bound. Although... So, now, were we. OK, he'd delay his return for another day and, totally unnecessarily, escort us to Los Cocos
. Salinas Grandes is not really on the tourist map. This has nothing to do with the unrest, it simply never has been. And there is no good reason for this unspoilt spot on the coast, a mere hour south east of Leon, not to be. It
Photo by Adi
should, in theory, be a backpacker's dream - well, certainly a backpacker's who surfs.
As we mounted the bus Jordan spotted his friend, semi ex-pat Jeff, who'd not been heard of since a party three day's previously. Yes, he was also heading to Jordan's place. At the bus's termination we were met by Enesto, Jordan's elderly Nicaraguan partner who owns the hostel's land. Being a single, long-time, MS sufferer he is very happy with their reciprocal business arrangement, not least for having an able-bodied person about the premises. That said Enesto is still remarkably mobile (with the aid of a walker) and there he was sat on the quad bike waiting to meet us and transport our packs along the dirt trail to the hostel. To the left of the trail, abutting the ocean, are homes and to the right salt ponds. Beyond the latter the land rises somewhat and is dotted with farmsteads that at this time of year appear desperate for the start of the rains. Little seems to be growing in the parched earth save a grapefruit-resembling fruit hanging heavily on squat gnarled trees. These are very popular among the bovine community and indeed
many cattle roam freely among them gorging on windfalls. Los Cocos
is basic. There's a decent little kitchen, a dorm and two private rooms. The showers, hardly high on a surfers list of priorities, are al fresco and afford minimal privacy. Ali frowned. However, the plot extends down to the pristine beach that stretches for kilometres in either direction and there are an assortment of covered seating/hammocked areas amidst the sand. The impressive surf, breaking both left and right, rumbles constantly in the background.
Wander westwards along the beach and you come to the estuary; here there are two restaurants, although they may not be inclined to perform any cooking. Enesto's recommended one (that on the right) can usually be persuaded to knock up rather good whole fish with rice and salad, whilst it is also the cheapest option for beer. We gave Jordan a hard time about his personal beer prices and he eventually agreed (hell, we weren't currently buying his) to match the lowest denominator. If possible you want to sit out back of the restaurant as an arm of the shallow estuary curls around the rear yard and at high tide
almost encircles the premises. Evening also sees dogs playing in the water and horses crossing the shallow flow to greener pastures on the opposite bank. Sunsets from here are amazing.
Also in residence at Jordan's was another of his acquaintances, Phil, predictably a surfer. He was earning his keep (free lodging) by repainting various structures. As evidenced by us this equated to no more than an hours work a day. Seemingly we were the only paying guests. Nevertheless, several days in and somehow (admittedly exercise sounded novel) we'd been roped into labouring on the farm. As the sun beat down we were provisioned with pick axes and shovels and set to work digging a run-off entrapment ditch (3ft wide and 3ft deep). It was already 30 metres in length and over the course of four very sweaty exhausting hours we added another five. Whilst the threatened free beers failed to materialise Jordan did send Enesto off to procure a huge fish - this we barbequed later by twilight in the beach firepit and (unsure of the species) a wonderful meaty tuna-like masterpiece it was. The five of us were still sucking on greasy fingers as our ipod
held court in the background when Jordan suggested we switch from my mini speakers to his sound system. From somewhere he produced a five feet high, three feet wide beast of a speaker/amp. If there had been any other backpackers within several hundred metres we would have been the party hostel. But as it was we were alone. We cracked emergency bottles of rum and sat with feet in the cooling sand as the tunes thudded out into the moonlit night. Such was the volume that we missed the first distant rumbles of thunder and it wasn't until the black horizon was repeatedly split by lightning that we realised the rains were upon us. The speaker covered with a tarp we huddled together away from the encroaching onslaught and partied on. It was a very late, wet, and ultimately most interesting night that culminated in impromptu, barely pre-dawn, fry-ups.
Dragging ourselves away we headed to Granada on the northern shore of the massive lake Nicaragua, another most picturesque city where it was all to easy to hang for several days. We'd been contemplating whether to traipse across country (a lengthy and none too straight forward journey) to
the Caribbean coast and Bluefields - the departure point for the Corn Islands. Three years ago Mike and Zoe had visited the said islands and their tales of the terrifying roller-coaster ferry/panga (small outboard boat) rides - at precisely this time of year (rainy season was most certainly with us now) - had not put Ali in a happy place. Since their visit there had also been two ferry disasters on this route, one of which resulted in many lost lives. Ali reasoned that if it were raining.... what was the point? And so we agreed to merely go to Bluefields to experience its Caribbean vibe and maybe wander along the coast from there.
Our charming landlady at Lucy's Hostel
in Granada had phoned to book us seats on the bus from Managua to Bluefields for the following day (you don't want to get stuck in the dodgy grimey capital). Thus at first light we caught a chicken bus to Managua. Even though our packs went on the roof the conductor still requested an additional fare for them (conductors seem to be the exception to the fair, honest Nicaraguans we had met thus far; and this scam
is extremely common). The counter is to hand over the exact money mid-journey as the conductor performs his rounds. Normally such an approach, whilst huddled among the local (quietly supportive) passengers, prevents them from pursuing their extortions. Sadly it doesn't always and in such cases merely remain strong and simply refuse. The locals don't, typically, get involved but they are attentive and even if your Spanish is as bad as ours use it - loudly - because then all are aware of your (justified) stand, they certainly don't pay extra for their bulky belongings. This may result in nastiness, but eventually the conductor has always backed down (and our packs have never been jettisoned mid-trip). Crossing Managua, to the onward terminal, is a logistical bitch and is one of the few cases when a taxi is really unavoidable. Miraculously our stubborn indifference to advances was rapidly met with an offered fare we knew to be correct; indeed our driver was extremely friendly and full of information. And so with relatively minimal stress we arrived at Ivan Montenegro bus terminal. A kindly gent directed us to the bus company's office where we were informed that we were at the wrong terminal:
the 9pm bus did indeed leave from here, although the 2pm bus didn't. Really? Not wanting to navigate our way across town again we switched our reservation to the later bus - what's an eight hour wait?
As we sat reading and playing some crib a rasta, Charlie, sat and chatted. He is from Bluefields and presumed that we were heading there purely to catch the ferry (they only run once a week) to the Corn Islands. Totally outwith our knowledge we would arrive just two hours before its departure. This coincidence seemed too strong to ignore. Not only that but Charlie explained how on the back of the capsizing ferries they - now - stop running when winds exceed 20 knots. And so, with the threat of a wet demise reduced, our plans flipped: all being well we would head to the islands after all...
By evening we'd been joined by a further six backpackers, all of whom were also Corn Island bound.
The overnight ride on the tired old bus was fine, unless you were Becks and Sarah who had rear non-reclining, zero leg room, plastic covered seats and
for whom it was a mare. Dawn at Bluefields dock was grey and drizzly, but, crucially, the sea was placid. All commodities on the Islands - some six hours distant in the Caribbean sea - are, not surprisingly, expensive and in desperation (hell, we hadn't intended to visit) we went on a last minute hunt for staples, i.e. rum. Nada. The shops wouldn't open until long after we'd pulled anchor. We munched on a couple of patties (Nicaragua's ubiquitous meat-filled pastry street food), sipped on some weak sweet tinto coffees and waited for boarding.
A flat calm crossing laughed in the face of Ali's fears. At Big Corn's dock Sarah and Becks were met by their pre-booked hostel's (Feel at Home
) somewhat surly proprietor; the others were all pushing straight on to Little Corn, a bouncy further hour away by Panga. He, Leonardo, was keen for us to join them and we said we would.... if the price was right. He wasn't very happy with our idea of that price (one that we knew was readily available elsewhere), but eventually, somewhat begrudgingly, he did offer us a back room that evidently he didn't rate too highly. If
it hadn't been for staying with the girls we wouldn't have entertained his proposition. What wasn't said, and what we only found out the following morning, was that unlike the other guests we wouldn't receive breakfast. Our enquiry into its absence was met with a sneer. It was his loss as we'd now all be moving on rapidly. Peevishly shoddy - and short sighted - hostel managership: from four potential long stay guests he would shortly be back to none. We did however have to stay a second night and during that evening we befriended the extended family's women folk who were sat around playing cards - Ali caring for a baby so that mum could indulge. Unexpectedly our last morning was greeted with a breakfast. On discovering the women's treachery Leonardo's face was a picture - it was hard not to sneer.
Big Corn, measuring only five by three miles, is named thus only because its relatively near neighbour - Little Corn - is a fraction of that. The former still exists by means other than tourism, whilst the latter totally relies on its visitors. Rasta Charlie had stated this fact adding that this accounted for
Little Corn's safety: anyone stealing from or abusing a tourist would be drummed from the island and literally banned from returning; those jeopardizing its reputation are viewed in a very poor light. Happily, as we were later to discover, this is totally reflected in the kind, gentle and welcoming way you are received... on Little Corn. Big Corn, considered less quaint (Little Corn's interior is still largely jungle bisected by crude paths), its beaches less pretty (although its Long Beach is excellent) and largely shunned in favour of its diminutive neighbour, seems to have a chip on its shoulder. Tourists are treated indifferently (there's absolutely nothing wrong with that), but those involved with tourism seem cold and calculating, appearing to grab what they can, when they can, from those transient visitors. A different attitude and guests might well stay longer?
Once again we lucked out and the hour's outboard trip across to Little Corn was remarkably smooth (unlike the trip up the Rio Dulce Genteel Guatemala: volcanoes, lakes, lengthy skirts and curly-toed boots.
). The girls had a pre-booked room but keen not to rush into another unseen dud we put in some leg work and were rewarded for our efforts in discovering Three Brothers Hostel
Randy, the proprietary brother, a jolly bear of a man, is delightful as is his hostel. We rapidly agreed on a price, one that he further slashed the following day when we proposed a more protracted stay. It is low season and many guesthouses are totally empty; this is a man who knows his business. Also attempting to check-in were two young Israeli girls, Adi and Batel - later to become our charges - who were giving him a hard time.
Batel: "The lights don't work".
Randy: "Yes, that's because there is no electricity on the whole island between 6am and 1pm".
Batel: "We should pay less because the lights don't work....".
Actually they were both very sweet, just - mostly - astute.
That second day we negotiated the same room rate for Sarah and Becks whose on-line choice had once again proved the value of not doing exactly that. Randy was more than happy to oblige, it wasn't often that his guests recruited more custom.
Wandering along the jungle paths to the north of the island, a mere twenty minutes walk,
saw us at Otto the most picturesque of Little Corn's beaches where we met up with Rob and Amy who'd also come over with us from Bluefields. They were staying the more expensive, though still not unreasonably so, Ensuenos hostel
. Built and run by a Spanish ex-pat the dwellings are spectacularly constructed from tree limbs and driftwood, but also incorporating natural stone formations into floors and walls. Some are hobbit-like dwellings, others tree houses. For those on a larger budget it is hard to resist. Food there is also apparently excellent, but at a serious cost.
Most days we, Becks and Sarah would hit the sands, have a couple of sun-kissed beverages and then return to prepare a shared meal. Vegan Sarah can knock up a great nosh, bubbly Becks... well, she was happy to leave it to the adults... Evenings were largely rum-fuelled, now additionally in the company of the Israelis. Unbelievably we had to refresh their memories as how to play Yaniv.
Increasingly we were also spending time with Joanna, Randy's niece, who - bless her misguided soul - developed a soft-spot for myself. When, not if, I return (it is not
clear if Ali is included in this) I must stay at her annex of Three Brothers, there will be no cost and she will look after me. I've had many worse offers.
The famed local Caribbean dish, both on the mainland and on the islands, is Rondon a mega coconut, fish/shell fish, root vegetable and fruit stew that takes several hours to prepare (and costs a pretty penny in specialist restaurants). Joanna calls it Rundown as, being so rich, it is renowned for its swift intestinal passage. Keen to see what calibre of future match I might make she announced that I was preparing this, not simple, dish: she'd merely direct. Step one: dehusking the coconuts. Cue a lethal three foot machete for the purpose. Step two: extracting the flesh, without spilling any milk, from the nut. Now, way closer to fingertips, the machete really did seem overkill. At this stage all is finesse, with a steady chipping away of the shell necessary. A slightly misjudged strike and I hit flesh (fortunately not my own) - this wasn't overly impressing my tutor/suitor (we drained the internal milk that, whilst still fine for the ultimate product, was not
the done way). Next up the grating of the coconut flesh from which we'd, on repeatedly washing/squeezing through muslin with small amounts of water, create the cream and then latterly the milk. The machete was scary, the somewhat more innocuous foot long grater, created from a repeatedly perforated and then rolled sheet of metal, proved to be more blood thirsty. I tried to hide the periodic additions of pink grated coconut dyed by my shredded knuckles. Bodily threatening stages over Sarah and Becks were allowed to perform the washes that resulted in bowls of luscious thick cream and more watery milk. Unable to procure one in the local stores or from friends Joanna recruited a local lad to scale a tree - not a popular chore given the relentless rain, the resultant slick nature of its branches, or the height needed to be scaled for the targeted bounty - for a breadfruit. This task was further complicated by the size of the specimen she required, some four pounds plus in weight: it had to be perfectly ripe. This, once peeled, and chopped into hunks needed to be repeatedly washed and then salted - not to do so, like a aubergine,
would cause discolouration.
It was at this stage that Joanna announced her dislike of non-white foods. We all looked at her in amazement: non-white foods? What the..... We duly struggled to name a dozen white foods.
Other ingredients included dalo (root vegetable: white), cassava (root vegetable: definitely more yellow than white), onions (yeah, white not yellow, nor red), two ghost peppers (yellow, although we'd not be eating those) that we were allowed to prick having said that we all liked heat, a large handful of garlic cloves (blanco), and (begrudgingly) salt and pepper (these weren't truly jungle-sourcible ingredients and she wasn't teaching us to make one of those bastardised packet ingredient infused variants so many establishments knock-up). Her only concession to colour was a handful of beautifully aromatic (green) lemon grass leaves, basil and some chopped fleshy (nothing like our perception of the herb) oregano. She had wanted thyme, but there wasn't any.
On simmering and reducing the ingredient containing broth (milk first, later the cream), one whole (cleaned and scaled) fish each - obviously white fleshed (jungle sourced?) - was laid on the top, the massive pan covered and the
fish allowed to poach. Yeah, we thought, this'll be fine but surely it'll be lacking... something. I fancied some additional whole red peppercorns, some capers? To accompany our stew I made chunky breadfruit chips. Joanna was mightily impressed with these golden-crisp beauties, maybe i'd redeemed myself?
Wow. To a woman (and - solitary - man) we were blown away. It really was very good indeed.
Another foodie notable on Little Corn is the scrummy coconut bread. Without fail we'd be waiting at 4pm for a fresh batch to emerge from the bakery's oven.
Randy had been touting a snorkelling trip. Ali and I armed with our own were nonplussed. Then one morning two newly arrived Swedish girls announced that they were going on this excursion and that if they could recruit more bodies then the price would drop significantly. It still seemed expensive, even to be venturing to the far distant reefs. We had a group discussion, potentially recruiting the four other girls, then spoke to Randy and suggested an alternative price - based on eight rather than two. He agreed and we all went. There were no mantas or hammerheads,
but we were more than happy with lobsters, stingrays and nurse sharks. Randy was a masterful careful captain around the breaks and his young snorkelling "guide" an excellent spotter. Even the grey day couldn't dampen our collective high spirits.
The buoyant mood continued into the evening until only the Israelis, Joanna and ourselves remained around the central seating area. It was getting late and the rum was running low when an unfamiliar French man appeared on the premises. He chatted with Jo who obviously knew him, rolled a few and then loitered after she'd crashed. Did we four fancy going back to his place on the south of the island to continue the evening? It was only a twenty minute walk. He had - he promised - a stunning beach-side house, all would be free, he had anything we could possibly want and... we could crash in his spare rooms. We looked to confident Adi, knowing she'd be a yes. And she was, if Batel was also. Batel baulked until we promised that we would escort them back whenever she wanted to leave. We all sized him up. He wasn't big; I could surely have him if
necessary, whilst the girls had combat training and no one in their right mind messes with Als. What could go wrong? And so - with head torches, we're not stupid - off through the pitch jungle trails we headed.
Darian was true to his word, he does have a fantastic house with a sprawling veranda just yards from the lapping sea. Not to be too cheeky we started with the last inches of our rum, but were soon tucking into his beer stocks. Batel crashed in a hammock whilst we all sat at the open air breakfast bar (bar) and enjoyed our host's hospitality. He seemed a thoroughly decent chap, maybe just somewhat lonely on the back of his recent split from his girlfriend (she'd decided that living on a remote island wasn't for her). Several hours later Batel awoke and stated that she was ready to leave; the rest of us weren't, but... we had promised. Thus we gathered our stuff and bade farewell to Darian. The three of us who'd continued imbibing were totally disorientated, this was going to be a hairy walk back. Fortunately Batel was in far better shape and we followed her
lead as the head torches picked out our way through the bush. We were perhaps half the way back when a panting Darien appeared out of the black. Had we mistakenly walked off with the cigarette packet that was on the bar? I checked my pockets. No. I showed him their contents. He appeared most concerned assuring us that he never misplaces anything; please, were we sure? This was getting creepy. Again I checked. No we didn't have them. Goodnight. And off we strode.
In our room Ali and I discussed his weird behaviour. What was all that about? And then Ali discovered a scrunched soft-pack bearing six sad looking cigarettes. The packet was the same colour as mine and she must have gathered them thinking... Christ. We examined the contents. Closely. Gave them a sniff... Surely they were only cigarettes; although who'd be concerned enough about a few cigarettes to go chasing through the night for them? Paranoia was kicking in: the offending articles would not be spending the night in our room and I rapidly wiped them clean of our prints and hid them outside. We'd be retracing our steps in the morning and returning
whatever they were.
Several days later saw us and B&S back in Grenada; Becks would stay on for a while whilst Sarah was heading south with us - post a supermarket supply run - to the volcanic island of Ometepe within lake Guatemala.
Lake Nicaragua is huge: the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest in the world by area, just a tad smaller than lake Titicaca. There are some monster carp-like fish in there, but Simon was already well into early season carp back in the US and the chances of locating anything here were vanishingly small... and then landing them... with a plastic bottle rod... The two conjoined volcanoes Concepcion (the biggie) and Maderas are linked by a narrow isthmus that forms the hourglass-shaped Ometepe. We'd hoped to climb the former, but the lousy incessant (not typical of rainy season) rain made that both treacherous and visually pointless.
Fortunately we'd found Lazy Crab hostel
, a real old school backpackers, in the little hamlet of Balgue. From here, when the weather allowed, we walked stretches of the coast spotting numerous troops of black Congo monkeys (they resemble their
cousins from central Africa) high above in aptly named monkeypod trees. The males are pretty territorial and not shy in expressing their displeasure at loitering humans. Unfortunately we were never to sight any capuchins. When the weather was less clement we hung around the pool table, played cards, or lazed reading in the hammocks and rocking chairs dotted about Crab's numerous levels and retreats, before braving the rain and heading to a bargain unmarked little restaurant. Here, on arrival, the family would dissipate and mum would set about cooking whatever she saw fit. Her tamales are probably the best I've ever sampled. Across the road was a very tempting English ex-pat run place with Indian curries on the menu. Whilst these were too pricey for our pockets their excellent freshly baked bread (Mon, Wed, Fri) couldn't be resisted.
The magnificent sunset view, looking back along the coastline to the perfect cone of Concepcion, eluded us during our four days in residence.
Ferries returning to the mainland depart from the north-westerly harbour town of Moyogalpa. It just so happened that our departure from here coincided with Beck's arrival and so the four of us were reunited
for another couple of days. Port towns, even those as tiny as Moya, are rarely endearing; Moya bucks that trend. It has a chilled laid-back vibe and the locals are most congenial. On meeting Becks inevitably we sought out a place for beer. Initial enquiries were all devoid of litre bottles (of Frost) and were duly dismissed by myself. The thirsty girls were becoming heartily sick with my pursuit of a bargain beer stop. That was until I enquired at what was little more than a kiosk, a harbour-side kiosk with half a dozen seats around its periphery. Domingo and his lady friend Marianela duly adopted us. In between/during beer rounds Domingo would provide us with gratis shots of delicious fiery tomato juice with the addition of some local spirit. Marianela would constantly emerge with tid bits of food that she insisted we try. There was no loo, but the girls - when in need - were ushered into the neighbouring family's house whose members would then come join us: grandma, suffering from dementia, was particularly delightful as was her teenage grandson who was rarely far from her side. The local youths and taxi drivers (on a break) would persuade
Domingo to up the music volume, join us in a beer and haul up the girls for a dance on the street corner. Each afternoon through to sunset our little patch of Moyogalpa was a buzzing hub of merriment.
Aside from scaling volcanoes and appreciating sunsets (neither of which we got to do) there isn't that much to Ometepe. Nevertheless, Ali fell in love with the place, to such an extent that she proposed we start a hostel there. Not in India? Heresy.
Becks stayed on, we - still with Sarah in tow - now only a day from outstaying our welcome ran for the border. Costa Rica had never been an anticipated destination: it lacks culture (is extremely Americanised), costs a fortune, the transport network is rubbish and as much as we love birds we are not twitchers: hell, we would have jumped it if that had proved the more economical option. All it was going to receive from us was two days in San Jose before we crossed another border into Panama.
Suddenly we were covering serious distance.
Costa Rica is considered the sanitized safe country in Central America, although the capital doesn't have the best reputation. On checking into a hostel we learned that the lady on reception was Nicaraguan, another casualty of the absent tourists at home she, with her little daughter in tow, had been forced to seek work elsewhere. Again she was delighted to hear that we'd spent time in Nicaragua, that we had loved it and that visitors appeared to be returning. Maybe, soon, she could also go home. We wandered around the pleasant enough city and the girls did another organised walking tour (I was excused due to a lethargy-inducing cold).Then on our last day together - Sarah was Mexico bound, whilst we'd scuttle to Panama City and then fly to Bogata, Colombia (the rapid passage through for the same reasons as Costa Rica) - Sarah, solo, went to check on early morning buses to the airport. A mere twenty metres from the hostel, at two in the afternoon, on a not deserted major street, she was mugged. It could have been far worse, but she was grabbed by the throat and her gold necklace wretched from her,
before the perpetrator (one of the area's many homeless) scarpered. The local gentleman walking only yards behind her chose to ignore the event. Not surprisingly she was pretty shaken. Final - calming - beer runs were performed by myself.
And here's a thing... Entrance to Costa Rica and Panama (and admittedly many South American countries) requires, in theory, evidence of further onward travel. I mention this here as the two precious southerly Central American countries are rigorous in their checks. This does not encourage spontaneity. Maybe we'd be mistaken and - highly unlikely I know - want to stay on longer? Some other visitor might want to bugger off sooner. To counter this many are booking (more expensive) air tickets just prior to the border crossings and then cancelling within the (24-48hr) cool-off window allowed. That's all well and good, but the risk of something going awry and losing all that money has spawned a whole new internet business: fake flight tickets. BestOnwardTravel appears to be the pick of these and for $12 you'll have a legitimate ticket (you're actually named on the airline's roster), received within two minutes, for your crossing that they
will then cancel 48hrs later. Better still have a computer-savvy friend who can do the same for free... Ok, our chum can't actually make you appear on the roster, but immigration rarely check that extensively on apparently legit bookings. We were asked for proof on entering Costa Rica and our totally fake ticket sufficed just fine; at Panama we showed our real tickets (a smartly dressed American crossing with us was not asked for proof - lucky him as he had nothing) and our temporarily valid BestOnwardTicket for Colombia (maybe they'd be more vigilant for arrivals to a continent?) was money wasted - Ali complemented the lady immigration official's nails, she smiled and bade us welcome. What a lot of nonsense. Oh, and the real ticket presented at Panama's crossing showed us leaving the country in two days, they gave us a three month visa...
Panama city did pleasantly surprise us: it has a very nice feel; the old quarter is beautiful and the views across the bay, particularly at night, to the modern skyscrapers impressive. Nevertheless this all comes at a cost. Backpacker friendly it isn't. We'd worried that we'd regret flitting so
quickly through Costa Rica and Panama. In all honesty - now several weeks on - we don't. Like our shunning of Machu Picchu Wot, no Machu Pichu!?
we must be among the few to visit Panama and not see the canal: both transport to and entrance fees once there were crazy. We do have the Manchester ship canal after all...
People are strange, we certainly are; we're all different and someone's ideal destination may be totally lost on another. Whilst adoring Guatemala and Nicaragua (we could certainly spend a lot more time in the latter) and having really wanted to stay longer in El Salvador (why is the accommodation so expensive?) it is becoming evident to us that latin America is simply not our paradise. It's great, but.... The people (in our long-stay destinations where we can make informed judgements) have been wonderful, the available (largely bland, though there have been many exceptions) food options have hardly been a trial, whilst our limited language abilities have coped much better than years ago (in South America). Somehow there is just, to us, a saminess; there are no great culture shocks; and truth be told we.... and I hate to say this....
become habituated, dulled, after six months or so. We find ourselves hankering after Asia. Sadly this doesn't bode too well for a protracted stay in South America. Hopefully Colombia will give us a much needed (as Mark Freeman might say) jigger...
Actually as I type this we approach curfew hour. Yep, Colombia has indeed thrown us a curveball.
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